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Express Yourself

When it comes to rich Web media development, it seems like Microsoft has been fighting with two hands tied behind its back. Like the ill-fated Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Redmond has been forced to fend of competition with little more than its legs and teeth, facing mature Flash-based development tools from Adobe to the white-hot popularity of AJAX development. Six months ago, the folks at Adobe were probably asking: "What are you going to do? Bleed on me?"

They aren't asking any more. Thanks to the emerging set of tools in Microsoft's Expression Studio suite, Redmond is becoming relevant in the rich Web design and development space. Built on four components -- Web, Blend, Design and Media -- Expression is a classic bit of Microsoft maneuvering. When caught at an obvious disadvantage, shift the playing field.

Expression does just that, by tying into the rich Windows Presentation Foundation layer in Vista and .NET 3.0 Framework to enable sophisticated GUIs, 3-D visuals and other effects previously limited to the realms of DirectX game development. WPF, however, is a rich client play -- the stuff to make Office sing and desktop graphic design soar. In the Web space, the secret sauce is WPF/Everywhere, a subset of WPF that will enable ubiquitous playback of rich visual and programmatic interfaces on all manner of Web clients.

Why would anyone shift from Flash interface development to the Expression suite? In a word: XAML. Short for Extensible Application Markup Language, XAML describes rich interfaces in a human- and machine-readable markup format, while enabling Flash-like animation, graphics and video. And just like that, Flash-based sites that were utterly opaque to Google searches can be fully indexed. What's more, designers who build interfaces using XAML tools like Expression can turn their work over to developers who can readily tune, tweak and twist the underlying interface code.

There's a workflow play here. Microsoft envisions a mingling of roles, as designers use Expression to engage functional tasks that in the past belonged strictly to programmers, and programmers ease themselves into the design arena. Where the two sides once lobbed work orders at each other, like hand grenades tossed across a river, tomorrow folks could be walking right across the bridge to do touch-up work themselves on the other side.

Is it a good thing? I'm not so sure. I'm pretty certain plenty of developers will be ready to man the approach to that bridge and shout "None shall pass!" But it does offer that choice.

What are your thoughts? Will you ditch Flash for Expression Web? Let me know at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 12/06/2006

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