With Expression Blend 3, Microsoft Looks To Link Developers with Designers

When Microsoft last week launched Silverlight 3, the company set a new stage for .NET developers looking to build out-of-the browser rich interactive applications. But its release and the planned shipment next month of the Expression Blend 3 suite also promises to allow closer collaboration among developers and designers.

Microsoft said at last week's launch event that Expression 3 will ship within 30 days at a list price of $599 ($349 upgrades) but a release candidate is available for download now. Expression 3 allows designers and developers to build behaviors into user interfaces without writing code. 

Enterprise developers are likely to welcome the suite, particularly a newly added component called SketchFlow, which will allow developers and designers to iteratively work on and share workflows. "It's something that anyone who is a Microsoft shop really needs to take a look at," said Gartner analyst Eric Knipp, in an interview.

Microsoft describes SketchFlow is an iterative workflow designer that allows for the dynamic prototyping of a UI-based controls. It provides for rapid development of layouts and the creation of application flows and functions of an app and lets teams visualize those prototypes.

"When you're done you press a button, you can open it in Visual Studio and keep working," said Knipp, who has looked at SketchFlow. "It closes the loop between the designer and developer in a way that has been more manual in the past."

When Microsoft revealed the SketchFlow feature in March at its MIX 09 conference, Dan Chait signed up for the early access program. Chait, who is managing director of New York-based consultancy Lab49, counts large financial services as his clients. At last week's launch, Chait demonstrated his use of SketchFlow during the keynote in a presentation called Visual Kitchen.

In a subsequent interview Chait explained that SketchFlow removes the manual process out of prototyping by allowing developers to iteratively create the processes within the tool. "You can present a number of different design directions to your customers very early on without having to invest a lot of time and money in building actual software," Chait said. "It's a lot like pen and paper prototyping, without any of the down side of pen and paper."

With SketchFlow, Chait starts a project off on a white board and maps out a few of the screens and how they would flow together. Then with a digital camera he takes pictures of those whiteboard sessions, imports them into his computer and in real time, drags and drops the images into SketchFlow and wires them together, which provides an early prototype of the workflow.

"You can click around and navigate from screen to screen, so you go from drawing something on a whiteboard to something you can click around in and determine how it's going to flow together. And iteratively you start to flesh out the pieces."

While that allows him to more incrementally design, it also lets him determine how his team is going to structure the code. "This is really about getting the vision right for the overall application," he said. "Previously there was this big disconnect between the design and the coding process."

While Kniff said enterprises should be looking at SketchFlow, right now it only generates XAML, he noted. "I think it will be interesting to see over time if SketchFlow is expanded to go beyond Microsoft technologies," he said. "It's of limited use to companies that are say using ColdFusion on the back end, though you could still iterate and use a slip of paper, but I think it's a nice innovation and  I hope Microsoft supports it and improves it over time."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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