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An Expression of Frustration

Last week Microsoft announced that the Expression development tools were probably not going to be available for at least another year. To many, that didn't even produce a blip on the radar. The Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), upon which the Expression works, is scheduled to be an integral part of the Windows Vista operating system. To developers, WPF is a new model for graphics programming, meaning that it is also a new model for user interfaces. To administrators, it represents a new model of computing to support, one that requires new hardware to fully appreciate.

Both groups are likely to be happy that they don't have to deal with applications using these new technologies until later. It may be a happiness born out of deferred pain, but it means another year before they have to worry about dramatic changes in application user interfaces and hardware requirements.

But it should be a big deal to Microsoft. With Windows Vista shipping around the end of the year, the development tools for new technologies should be available today so that developers can start coding, and administrators can begin planning for higher levels of graphic performance.

Expression is specifically targeted toward building user interfaces on WPF using the Aero user interface. Expression consists of a set of three tools – Graphic Designer, Interactive Designer, and Web Designer. The Graphic Designer is a powerful drawing tool intended for graphic designers to create high-quality graphics for user interfaces. Interactive Designer is a UI designer's tool, while Web Designer is a Web UI building tool. Both the Interactive and Web Designers let you visually create Aero user interfaces for their respective platforms.

The big problem that Microsoft faces is that no one is quite sure why they want a new graphics model. Granted, there are some intriguing new features in WPF and the Aero user interface. For example, it is possible to add perspective, shading, and transparency to graphic objects, and graphic regions can be overlaid on top of one another (which incidentally seems to render the GotFocus event more or less obsolete for graphical regions). And it does look impressive, although some viewers of early versions of Windows Vista find it disconcerting.

But except for gamers and a few people doing high-end data visualization, better graphics are pretty far down the list of new features people want. This may in fact be a case where there is new technology looking for a broad use. Back in 2002, managed code also fell into that category, and is moving into extensive use only today. And managed code was pushed both by Java and by the need to reduce memory errors. Aero applications may also be shunned by administrators, who don't want to upgrade hardware unnecessarily.

But there is no doubt that, once the Aero genie is out of the bottle, people's expectations of UIs will change in its favor. It simply does Microsoft no good to delay when that occurs.

It's also intriguing to note that while Microsoft intends for developers to create and deploy applications and UIs with managed code, while the upcoming Office 2007 (now tracking to the beginning of next year) uses the Aero look and feel with purely unmanaged code. A contact at Infragistics told me that WPF provides an unmanaged API as well as the managed one, although Microsoft is certainly not publicizing the unmanaged one. The Office group at Microsoft certainly has to target its users, and this is a clear indication that at least one large application group at the company isn't expecting a fast uptake of Vista and Aero.

So what should you do? If you're a developer with responsibility for user interfaces, start looking at WPF and Aero now. You may not be developing applications with these technologies for two or three years, but you should understand how UI development will change, and how to best plan for it. When the Expression tools become generally available, you'll be in a position to determine if they meet the needs of your applications going forward.

If you're a system administrator, look at the graphics hardware requirements for Vista and Aero today. After Vista ships, start buying systems, especially client systems, that meet these requirements. It might mean budgeting a bit more today, but when the expectations become set, the transition will be swift.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 07/25/2006 at 1:15 PM

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