Microsoft Debuts Expression, Visual Studio for Apps and C# 3.0

At its Professional Developer's Conference in Los Angeles , the software giant publicly unveiled Windows Workflow Foundation, Expression designer tools and Visual Studio Tools for Applications, the successor to Visual Basic for Applications.

The new tools, and Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E), C# 3.0 and LINQ XML query tools, all debuted this week, could give solution providers new opportunities to participate in the application and Web service development process, ISVs and consultants say.

The announcements come as Microsoft prepares to announce Release Candidate 1 of its core development platform upgrade, Visual Studio 2005, later this week. Visual Studio 2005, formerly code-named "Whidbey," will launch on Nov. 7.

All of the new tools shown this week – including workflow and Expression designers – are complementary to and integrated with VS 2005.

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Most significantly, Microsoft announced on Wednesday the beta 1 release of Windows Workflow Foundation or WWF, the anticipated workflow engine and framework that is part of Vista Windows client operating system and its WinFX programming model.

WWF complements the WinFX Windows Communications Foundation Web service and Windows Presentation Foundation graphics layers in the next Windows client, and will be supported across Microsoft's software line in the Longhorn Windows Server, Office 12, BizTalk server and Microsoft Dynamics Business Applications.

Custom applications developers said the new Windows service and framework will enable more partners to develop business process-oriented applications.

"The Windows Workflow Foundation will benefit the entire stack of Microsoft products and Microsoft partners, whether ISVs or custom developers," said Andrew Brust, CTO of Citigate Hudson, a custom application development shop in New York.

"By creating a platform, rather than a product per se, Microsoft is, in essence, imbuing products from Visual Studio and BizTalk Server, to SharePoint and potentially Office, with workflow capabilities," he added. "Partners can embed this engine into their own custom solutions or shrink-wrapped product, and suddenly everyone is working to a common standard. Plus there&s still plenty of room for Workflow ISVs to innovate on top of what WWF provides."

The software giant also formally revealed plans to ship a new family of Expression designer tools aimed at bridging the gap between web designers and corporate developers.

As part of the Expression line, Microsoft is developing a graphics designer code-named "Acrylic" with painting, illustration and effects capabilities, as well as a tool code-named "Sparkle Interactive Designer" for user interface design that uses the Windows Presentation Services, as well as a web layout and design tool dubbed "Quartz.

Developers can export XAML content into "Sparkle," "Quartz" or Visual Studio 2005, Microsoft said.

The company released Community Technology Previews of Expression tools in August and plans to ship most of them in the same timeframe as Vista next year, said Forest Key, group product manager in Microsoft's developer Division.

Expected to compete against other high-end design tools from Macromedia, the Expression tools give solution providers and developers new choices for Web design and Windows Vista design.

Microsoft VAR and consulting partner KLi is an early adopter partner that has used the Expression to enhance its e-learning services for clients, particularly for firms wanting to improve channel relationships.

The firm, which has used Macromedia products in the past, said the forthcoming Microsoft products enable designers to work more collaboratively with corporate developers and utilizes the Windows Presentation Foundation to enable the creation of high-end graphical training services.

For instance, KLi developed an interactive eLearning experience for 3M Building Safety Services that certifies tradesmen on fire protection products.

"This moves the software developer and media develop closer together," said David Goulet, director of software engineering for LogicBay, which was acquired recently by KLi. "We can do free form simulations using video, text, 3-D modeling, and animations."

Developers can use products such as "Acrylic" and "Sparkle" for eLearning and advertising applications but also for exposing ordinary business data, said Key.

"It's less obvious [how to use graphic designers] in the bread and butter business world," the Microsoft manager said. "The vast majority of content in corporations is text, and text pipeline in Windows Presentation Foundation allows highly crisp text layouts."

Microsoft also plans to release in late 2006 an enhanced .NET application customization technology extended for the 64-bit environment called Visual Studio Tools for Application, the successor to Visual Basic for Applications, said KD Hallman, general manager for Visual Studio Tools for Applications and Office and VB.NET.

The VSTA IDE and run-time engine, which will ship in the second half of 2006, can be licensed and embedded in applications ISVs and systems integrators develop. VBA solved many problems but did not allow applications to scale up the enterprise, she said, adding that Microsoft will continue to support VBA indefinitely.

VSTO can be used with Office but VSTA can be used by any application developed by ISVs or systems integrators, she said. Microsoft will use the IDE an run-time in Office 12 and the InfoPath 12 server, Microsoft said.

At the conference, ISV partner ABB said it will integrate VSTA into its next generation of RobotStudio, a robot programming tool.

"Customers started with something small and kept building on it and ran into a ceiling and that's why we like the scalability,' said Anders Ekelund, specialist of software development for ABB in Gothenburg, Sweden. Several system integrators are building practices and processes that will enable enterprise clients to embed VSTA in corporate applications, she said. VSTA is expected to ship in the third quarter of 2006, Microsoft said.

Microsoft also detailed a planned technology for developers dubbed Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E), seen widely as a form of portable XAML. WPE/E gives developers a subset of the graphics system for use on the .NET Compact Framework-based applications that run on mobile devices and computers others than PCs.

Additionally, Microsoft distributed at the show a technical preview of LINQ XML query language extensions for C# and Visual Basic that gives developers a way to query XML or relational data store without having to write a full XML query.

The preview runs on C# 2.0 and .NET Framework 2.0 in Visual Studio 2005. It is designed to be backward compatible and like WinFX applications will generate code that run on Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Microsoft also debuted a technical preview of its future AJAX-style development tool code-named "Atlas" that will allow ASP.NET developers to build rich client side technology on the .NET Framework. It supports java script.

While many developers will be able to use that technology in 2006, and workflow, expressions and VSTA tools in 2006, Microsoft is already planning out the next set of technologies for the next-generation release of Visual Studio, code-named "Orcas" and tentatively slated for a 2008 release.

At PDC Wednesday afternoon, Microsoft C# inventor and developer Anders Hejlberg gave developers a sneak peek at the next generation of C# 3.0. The next- generation language will incorporate LINQ and designed to integrate objects, relational and XML data. The LINQ query language will not be tied to Microsoft's APIs, the developer said.

But it's a long ways out, he noted. "We haven't even shipped Whidbey and we're already talking about C#3.0," said Hejlberg, whose comment elicited laughter from the large audience of developers that packed into the Los Angeles Convention Center hall to get a glimpse of the future.