Dev Shops Face Web Tool Choices

Microsoft Expression Web, SharePoint Designer, Visual Studio offer tough Web-tool choices to dev shops.

When Microsoft retired FrontPage at the end of last year, developers wanting to use Microsoft technologies to build Web sites faced three choices: Work with the new Expression Web, adopt SharePoint Designer or work with Visual Studio.

Sound confusing? Microsoft officials maintain that the decision is straightforward, and will become even more so over time.

"Down the pike, Expression Web will be even more for creative designers, and SharePoint Designer will follow its own path," says Wayne Smith, senior product manager for Expression Web. Even though both Expression Web and SharePoint Designer will continue to be able to be used for Web design, "the two products will diverge more over time," Smith says.

But with lines increasingly blurring between Web pages and Web apps, the choice doesn't seem to be quite so clear-cut.

SharePoint Designer and Expression Web cost the same -- $299 each for a full license -- and both include an almost identical feature set. However, SharePoint Designer is available via Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), and Expression Web is not. (Further confounding matters, Microsoft is offering MSDN subscribers who had FrontPage as part of their subscriptions a $99 upgrade for Expression Web.)

"The thing to keep in mind here is that Web application design and SharePoint application design are two very distinct activities," says Karen Hobert, a Burton Group analyst specializing in collaboration and content strategies. "Where confusion might ensue -- especially when Microsoft releases the next version of Visual Studio [code-named "Orcas"] -- is when to use SharePoint Designer or Visual Studio for building composite applications, [which are] different than SharePoint applications.

"Microsoft asserts that SharePoint Designer will be used to assemble composite applications, which it can do, but if I wanted to build a workflow procedure, I can only use SharePointDesigner to create workflow processes on SharePoint lists and not external components. For that, I'd need Visual Studio or some other workflow development tool," Hobert adds.

Drawing the Lines
Microsoft is working to establish a development continuum, with designers channeled toward Expression Studio and developers toward Visual Studio. Does that reflect its tool customers' reality?

Rex McFarlin, a developer with ZAAZ Inc. -- a Seattle-based firm that helped Microsoft develop the company's Expression team Web site -- was primarily a Visual Studio user. He said he only gave the Expression Web product a try because he figured it was more appropriate to use that product than a competitor's when doing work for the Redmond software maker.

"I've spent much of the last six years using Visual Studio. I've used [Adobe Systems] Dreamweaver sparingly. I had a period of time when I tried to use both Dreamweaver for front-end development and Visual Studio for server-side code. Ultimately, I stopped using Dreamweaver because it was simpler to stay within one environment [Visual Studio] for all code and because I was doing lots of Microsoft-based development, anyway," McFarlin says.

McFarlin says after giving Expression Web a whirl he decided to continue to use it for "all of the XML/XSL-intensive sites that we build."

"If I have a .NET server-side focused project, I'll use Visual Studio for that type of project. But, there's so much of what I do on a daily basis that makes Expression Web the perfect tool," he says.

Rex McFarlin"If I have a .NET server-side focused project, I'll use Visual Studio. But, there's so much of what I do on a daily basis that makes Expression Web the perfect tool."
-- Rex McFarlin, Developer, ZAAZ Inc.

In contrast, Ken Dudas, a Bloomfield, Conn.-based senior infrastructure engineer with AIS Collaboration Services within the insurance company CIGNA, says his SharePoint team has shifted from FrontPage to SharePoint Designer.

"With the recent announcement of [Microsoft Office SharePoint Server] 2007, our current 2.0 SharePoint environment will be upgraded and much more open to the many application requests for simple workflow applications that were previously difficult to initiate," Dudas says.

Seattle-based Personify Design Inc. is a Dreamweaver shop that is increasingly going the Microsoft tool route. But Personify is working with Expression Web, not SharePoint Designer.

"[Our developers] work solely in Visual Studio 2005 coupled with Team Foundation Server [TFS] for source control and work item tracking," says Personify President Brian Trautman. "When the handoff [between design and development] occurs, it's often via file share or e-mail. At this point, the Dreamweaver project needs to be changed into a VS2005 project, which takes additional time and effort and often, project items are misplaced.

"[Because] Expression supports ASP.NET development integrated within the product and the Web project format is shared with VS 2005, it's my goal to get the initial HTML and CSS work done in Expression Web. That way the handoff between the design team, HTML developer and application developer would be as seamless as possible," says Trautman, who adds, "[because] we're running TFS already on the development side, it would be great if the Expression products integrated with TFS."

Which Microsoft Web-Dev Tool Is Right for You?

Here's Microsoft's guidance, in a nutshell, regarding which Web-dev tool to use for which job:
  • Use SharePoint Designer if you're a solution creator using SharePoint technologies
  • Use Expression Web if you're a professional Web Designer building standards-based, broad-reach CSS/XHTML Web sites
  • Use Visual Studio 2005 if you're a Web developer who wants to build high performance, robust and enterprise-ready Web applications with ASP.NET 2.0
  • Use Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition if you're a hobbyist/enthusiast who's just learning to build Web sites
Source: Expression Web blogger Devindra S. Chainani archive/2006/04/10/572704.aspx

Getting Wise
WiserWays LLC, a Houston-based Web design and development consultancy, also has been a Dreamweaver user, with a smattering of Bradbury Software's TopStyle Pro and FrontPage mixed in. (WiserWays Director Cheryl Wise is a FrontPage Most Valuable Professional, or MVP.) Wise first test-drove Expression Web in spring 2006.

"By the time Expression Web was released in December 2006, more than 40 percent of my Web design work was being created using Expression Web at the expense of Dreamweaver 8," she says, calling Expression Web "the best CSS editor I've ever used."

For Wise's clients who've grown accustomed to using FrontPage to manage their Web sites, the transition to Expression Web "has been a mixed bag," she admits.
"Some of them have taken to Expression Web like a duck to water, going so far as to uninstall FrontPage completely. Others move back and forth between Expression Web and FrontPage because they get somewhat confused by the task panes and current Web standards. A few are terrified of Expression Web's apparently more complex interface, and they do not want to give up the ease of inserting Flash or creating photo galleries -- even when those bots don't work properly in all Web browsers," Wise says.

For herself, Wise has game-planned which products she'll be using and when, seeing each as having particular strengths.

"I'll continue to use Expression Web for the things it does really well, such as CSS and standards-based XHTML. I will continue to use Dreamweaver for PHP and Classic ASP (many of my sites are still using Active Server Pages with no plans to move to ASP.NET). I will be looking to Visual Web Developer Express to supplement the immature ASP.NET 2.0 tools.

"As a designer/developer with the emphasis on design who works primarily with small to [midsize] businesses, Visual Studio is overkill for my needs. I'm also looking forward to seeing Dreamweaver 9. [Because] Microsoft has decided to get serious about a good Web editor, I expect Adobe to push back."

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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