Can Expression Studio challenge Adobe?

Can Expression Studio challenge Adobe?

Whenever Microsoft introduces a genuinely new set of products, it's always worth paying close attention.

The company's new Expression Studio suite brings together four programs that stake out some new territories for Microsoft and strengthen its presence in existing ones. Expression Web is the latest incarnation of FrontPage, an adjunct to Microsoft Office, while Expression Design, Expression Blend and Expression Media are entirely new applications. They are meant to work together as a design suite for the Web and for desktop applications, especially as a way to support Microsoft's Silverlight technology and the .Net platform in general.

Silverlight is intended as a competitor to Adobe's Flash in some respects: It lets users run rich Internet applications in a browser but also includes some more advanced features like JavaScript functionality and AJAX. To that end, Expression Studio is the first iteration of a set of tools to allow people to create those applications.

Right now, all four applications in the suite are available as fully functional, 60-day trial downloads. The current iteration of the suite contains Expression Blend 1.0, but Blend 2.0 is already in a preview form with a 180-day trial period. Also only available in its free trial form is Expression Media Encoder, which converts video into the proprietary VC-1 codec used by Silverlight.

Expression Web (available individually)

Microsoft Expression Web is what Microsoft FrontPage should have been all along, and the only shame is that it took Microsoft this long to get it right.

Among Web designers, FrontPage rightfully earned the status of a running joke. It generated bloated HTML jammed with proprietary tags; it was a pain to use with FTP; and the mere thought of FrontPage extensions, those proprietary server-side additions that created more directory clutter and security issues than usable features, was enough to make people scream.

Expression Web's interface and layout are still very much like FrontPage's: a tree for the site users are currently editing, an editing pane that can be toggled or split between raw code and WYSIWYG editing, and so on. Microsoft has kept the best parts of FrontPage's classic look and feel to retain existing users, while retooling the program to be strongly standards compliant.

There's enough backward compatibility with Front Page specific features that one can continue to work more or less seamlessly with older FrontPage projects. These features include the dreaded FrontPage extensions and Web bots, which render content like page includes when the site is published to a remote host.

What's immediately apparent is the presence of new panels that let users edit and apply CSS styles as well as work with tag and CSS properties. This stuff is also made easier to use through intuitive GUI mechanisms.

For example, users can move a CSS class from a page to a style sheet by simply dragging and dropping. If they want to wrap objects within a DIV or a SPAN tag, just select the objects, choose the

object from the HTML toolbox and select Wrap. The older versions of FrontPage had the Quick Tag Editor (and it's still present in Expression Web), but it isn't as immediately useful.

The HTML and XML generated by Expression Web is as free of Microsoft-centric tags as it gets, which is a welcome relief. The functions in FrontPage 2003 to clean spurious tags (such as those generated by Word) are all still here, but if users are starting a project anew they'll be pleased at how things look.

Pages can also be run against standards-compliance checks and automatically reformatted to use XML, and there's an option to automatically point out tags that don't validate against the current document definition. Internet Explorer 7 is broken out as its own validation standard - a useful choice, since IE7 renders things markedly unlike IE6 or competing browsers.

Another major improvement over FrontPage is the way FTP is handled; in FrontPage, it always felt like an afterthought. Expression Web lets users set up an FTP site so pages can either be edited remotely (fast) or synchronized with a local cache of files (better support for quirky things like Web bot includes). Best of all, users can make local copies of pages or folders selectively.

One thing noticeably missing in the editor, which might throw some people off, is the Preview tab. If users want a truly accurate preview version of the page being edited, they can either press F12 to launch it in a browser, or press Ctrl-/ to turn off all the on-screen visual aids such as table borders and element demarcators.

In conclusion, this is a very worthy replacement for FrontPage, although it's geared more toward professional Web developers than novices.

Expression Design (not available individually)

Design is, loosely speaking, Microsoft's version of the Adobe Illustrator vector graphics drawing application. It sports a range of vector drawing tools that stack up decently well against Adobe Illustrator - but Illustrator has been playing this game for a couple of decades now and has enough adherents (and enough polish) that people are not simply going to switch on a whim. We suspect, though, that the program is aimed at convincing people without Illustrator or anything like it to purchase Expression Studio.

Design offers a palette of fairly typical vector drawing tools - such as primitives, polygons and splines - all of which have malleable attributes like stroke style (plain line, dotted line, inkbrush stroke) and opacity. Users can also manipulate text as a text object.

Objects can also be collated into Photoshop-like layer groups, each with their own distinct compositing style. Bit maps can be handled as bit maps or traced to vector images, although we found autotracing really only works well for simple black-and-white line art.

One thing we noticed right away is how certain controls - like the spacing for fonts - are implemented using a sort of hybrid interface widget. Click on the control and users can type in a value; click to one side of the control and a drop-down menu with various options appears; click and drag on the control and it turns into a kind of slider, with changes registering in real-time.

Now on to what's explicitly missing. For one, CMYK support is completely absent from Design. This makes it effectively useless for colour-separated print work (although it would work fine with office colour printers). Another hefty strike against Design is its lack of native support for either Adobe Illustrator documents or for the SVG vector-image open standard.

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