Microsoft expresses creative side with updated suite

Microsoft says the upcoming release of Expression Studio 2.0 – its suite of design and media applications – is a bonanza for developers and designers.

It will enable them to “build rich interactive applications for the desktop, for mobile devices, or for the Web,” says Rini Gahir, senior product manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada Co. “We finally have a real front-end designer tool that enables you to build that rich UI [user interface] on top of a Microsoft stack.”

Version 2.0 – slated to be widely available from June 1 – includes changes that improve productivity, Gahir says.

Mano Kulasingam, VP of professional services at Digiflare, demonstrates the improved workflow in Expression Studio 2.0.

He says Microsoft is investing heavily in its UX family of coding languages, including ASP.NET 3.5, and Silverlight 1.0, and it wants designers and developers to have the right tools to build on those.

A Canadian analyst notes that Microsoft is undoubtedly trying hard to get designers and developers hooked on Silverlight, its cross-browser, cross-device plug-in for delivering the rich interactive applications for the Web.

The release of Expression Studio 2.0 is a step in that direction, says Michelle Warren, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“The hurdle they face right now is that Adobe is really popular and considered the standard,” Warren says.

But Microsoft says it doesn’t view Expression Studio 2.0 as a competitor to Adobe’s Creative Suite.

Instead the company is positioning Expression Studio as a complementary tool for designers who want to exploit Microsoft’s coding languages.

“This is another tool in your designer toolbelt,” Gahir says.

The product allows users to import files created in Adobe into Expression projects.

Drag and drop functionality exists with Photoshop files, and users can even preview different layers or use them as a base to create animations. Adobe Illustrator’s vector graphics files will also be compatible with the studio.

Graphic designers that live in Adobe’s programs will feel at home with Microsoft’s new offering, says Mano Kulasingam, vice-president of professional services at Mississauga, Ont.-based Web design firm Digiflare Inc., a Microsoft partner.

“If you are using Adobe Illustrator to create your artwork, you can bring that into Expression and retain all the vectors and the details of that image,” he says.

Critics of Expression Studio 1.0 claimed the five products were standalone programs branded as one package. After listening to designer community feedback, Microsoft has tried to improve the workflow from one application to the next.

One feature allows users to create a file in the Design program and then export it for use in Blend, the programming tool.

The idea is to bridge the gap between designers and developers, Gahir says.

“You can create the file in a XAML format in Design and that can be opened up in Blend,” he says. The file could also be edited simultaneously by a designer and developer through these programs.

Expression Studio 2.0 is available for outright purchase or through a new subscription offering from Microsoft targeted at designers, the Expression Professional Subscription.

This is similar to what the MSDN subscription gives developers, but with a different set of programs.

“It’s a complete software package to enable designers to build what they want,” Gahir says. It includes a user’s choice of Windows Vista or XP operating system, Visio Studio, Parallels so the software can run on a Mac, some third-party products, Office, and Virtual PC.

The subscription is $1,345 for the first year and $875 to renew. To buy the package outright, Canadians will shell out $799.95.

“To renew the license for $875 a year, they’re going to run in to a lot of problems,” says Info-Tech’s Warren. “I think there’s more interest in just buying the one-shot, that’s the kicker.”

Every product in the suite is available individually except for Design. The products can also be downloaded for a free 60-day trial.

Expression Web 2.0

Standalone price: $409. Available in retail May 25.

This product is positioned as FrontPage on steroids. It is meant to be used as the main Web-design tool in the suite, and comes with PHP document support.

“A lot of customers were asking for that support in version one, we listened to them and brought that into the product,” Microsoft’s Gahir says. There’s also support for ASP.NET 3.5, AJAX and enhanced CSS features for improved rendering and design time.

Silverlight 1.0 is supported and FTP publishing capabilities have also been improved, he adds.

Expression Design 2.0

This is not available as a standalone product.

Design is Microsoft’s vector-graphics artwork tool in the Expression Studio 2.0 suite. The nearest parallel would be Adobe Illustrator. Version 2.0 has been built to work more seamlessly with Blend, allowing vector graphics to be exported into XAML format.

Expression Blend 2.0

Standalone price $669.95, available May 25.

Dubbed Microsoft’s answer to Adobe Flash, this set of applications lets developers build rich application interfaces with Silverlight technology.

The newer version allows users to drag-and-drop many different file formats into their workflow and have them converted to a format that works with Silverlight.

Much like Visual Studio, the program now has design and code tabs that allow a developer to switch back and forth between an approximation of what the finished product will look like and the raw code they’re writing.

“We’re keeping up with the platform changes, but we’re also adding productivity features,” Gahir says of the new version.

Expression Media 2.0

Standalone price $269.95. Available May 25.

Media is the organizer Microsoft is giving users to catalogue all multimedia files they’ll be managing when using the suite. It will now support more than 100 file formats.

Photo buffs may appreciate the RAW file support, and Photoshop users will be able to preview individual layers of their files.

Files can be organized by keywords, and made searchable. Geo-tagging is a new feature. “You can actually geo-tag a photo you took, and then with Live Maps, show where that photo was taken,” Kulasingam says.

Users who want to share their photos will be able to export a Silverlight gallery to the Web.

Expression Encoder 2.0

Standalone price $269.95, available May 25.

This is the video encoder that comes with the suite. It supports many different video codecs, including some hi-definition codecs. Users outputting Silverlight format video can choose from a range of player templates.

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