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Express yourself with Microsoft Expression

This month Microsoft Expression makes the hot list on two counts. First, there is Expression Blend Release Candidate 1, now available for download. Also, Expression Web and Expression Blend will be included in MSDN premium subscriptions; the entire Expression Studio will be included with Visual Studio Team Suite MSDN subscription.

The Expression brand encompasses Microsoft's latest set of tools for building user interfaces, creating graphics, and media management: They are targeted at designers, not developers. Four distinct products make up the Microsoft Expression line; bundled together, they form Expression Studio (ERP $599 USD)

Microsoft Expression Blend (ERP $499 USD)
Blend (formerly known as Sparkle) is for designing Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) applications and controls. Blend is written using WPF and managed code for the UI. Blend is intended for designers. There's no side-by-side XAML editing; instead, you must switch to XAML mode then back to design mode. The XAML editing experience is relatively poor, feeling much like notepad with pretty colors. There's no built-in editor for the associated VB or C# files. However, it does work well with Visual Studio, allowing seamless sharing of projects between the two.

Developers are more likely to feel at home with Cider (the WPF editor for Visual Studio Orcas) than Blend. Cider offers a great design-time experience with side-by-side XAML editing, and a more friendly XAML editing experience. Blend, on the other hand, features a great design experience for UI creation: The ability to set gradient fills at design time easily, support for 3D, and drag-and-drop animation time-line editing. Blend also provides great support for various forms of data binding, whether to objects, XML, or resources.

Blend will be the tool you or your designers will want to use for designing rich UIs that utilize WPF. Visual Studio Orcas will be the tool you'll use for the code behind those UIs. Finally, Microsoft has separated the UI from the code, and provided distinct tools for the different tasks.

Microsoft Expression Design (not sold separately)
Design is a vector-based drawing program. The first beta of Design was named Acrylic and was based on Microsoft's acquisition of Creature House Expression. (Obscure fact: This seems to be where the "Expression" tag originated from.) Rebuilt completely from scratch with a simplified UI written in WPF, Design feels more friendly to the novice than Creature House did. It has great support for brushes, paths, and vector manipulation. A key feature of Design is that it provides export to XAML. If you are building graphics for WPF, you'll want Design.

Microsoft Expression Web. (ERP $299 USD)
Expression Web (EW) is for the next version of Microsoft FrontPage, rebadged. It offers greater support for CSS formatting and layout, accessibility guidelines, compatibility testing, and ASP.Net 2.0. As a tool for editing ASP.Net sites, I find EW lacking. You can't drag to position an ASP.Net control on a page; file management doesn't group associated code behind files, and so on. To put it frankly, EW doesn't yet achieve the level of design and code separation we get from Blend and Visual Studio.

But the good news for developers is a lot of work was done on the FrontPage assemblies to make them usable by Sapphire. Sapphire is the code name for the Web page editor in Visual Studio Orcas. Sapphire has the great auto CSS support that Expression Web does.

However, Expression Web is a huge step forward compared to the previous version of FrontPage. Pricing is similar to Adobe's DreamWeaver, so expect to see some competition there.

MSDN premium subscribers can download Expression Web from the MSDN subscription centre.

Microsoft Expression Media (ERP $299 USD)
Expression Media consists of two products. The first is a media catalogue application that Microsoft acquired from iView. As far as a cataloguing application goes, it seems reasonably good. The main thing that struck me was the requirement to install Apple QuickTime for the application to run. Microsoft hasn't really touched this acquisition, and simply named it as part of their Expression line-up.

The more interesting application is Expression Media Encoder, which, like Blend and Design, has a WPF UI. Encoder allows you to edit and encode your streaming media, providing you with a WYSIWG like experience. It also has strong tie-ins to Microsoft SilverLight.

Microsoft SilverLight
SilverLight is the new name for WPF/E, Microsoft's "flash killer." Stay tuned for more information on SilverLight when new tools and runtime are released. Currently only the February WPF/E SDK bits are available, renamed to SilverLight, but otherwise unchanged.

About the Author

Bill McCarthy is an independent consultant based in Australia and is one of the foremost .NET language experts specializing in Visual Basic. He has been a Microsoft MVP for VB for the last nine years and sat in on internal development reviews with the Visual Basic team for the last five years where he helped to steer the language’s future direction. These days he writes his thoughts about language direction on his blog at http://msmvps.com/bill.

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