Microsoft Targets Adobe With Expression Web Launch

dislodge the kingpin of the design software space

Expression Web is the first product out the door, released Monday through Microsoft's retail channel. Priced at $299 for new users and $99 for users upgrading from FrontPage, Expression Web helps Web developers build sites in compliance with various industry standards, including XHTML and CSS, and for compatibility with specific browsers. Integration with Microsoft's Visual Studio 2005 and ASP.Net 2.0 enable Microsoft-centric development shops to incorporate more advanced functionality.

With Expression Web's release, Microsoft fleshed out the road map for the rest of its design suite, which has been working its way through Microsoft's community technology preview (CTP) process for the past year. The suite will consist of four applications -- up from the three Microsoft previously intended to comprise the Expression line -- and will ship in the second quarter of 2007, with a full-suite retail price of $599. Some of the suite's component applications, such as Expression Web, also will be offered as stand-alones.

In addition to Expression Web, the suite will include Expression Blend (formerly Interactive Designer, and code-named Sparkle before that), Expression Design (formerly Graphic Designer, code-named Acrylic) and a new tool, Expression Media, for digital asset management and workflow. Media is built atop the MediaPro software that Microsoft picked up through its June acquisition of iView Multimedia.

Microsoft's offerings will go head-to-head with Adobe applications such as Dreamweaver and Illustrator, long the tools of choice for design professionals. The Redmond, Wash., software giant is taking a Big Bang approach, launching the full creative-suite product line in one go.

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"The chance to bring a full suite to market in a version 1.0 hasn't been something that's really happened in the creative industry," said Forest Key, director of Web and client user experience platform marketing for Microsoft's developer division. "It's been more organic, with the suite an afterthought."

Microsoft's Expression line will be most beneficial to developers who already work frequently with Microsoft's Visual Studio development tools and .Net programming environment. At Thirteen23, an Austin, Texas-based design services firm that uses Microsoft's platform for its development, preview versions of Expression Blend have led to significant quality improvements in the company's work, according to designer Ryan Dawson.

"With these products, we can do an almost direct, lossless translation from what the designers design," Dawson said.

Thirteen23 does its initial design work in Adobe Photoshop, an application without a comparable parallel in Microsoft's product line. In the past, the firm then tried with Visual Studio to create code linked as closely as possible to its initial vision. Now, using Blend, Thirteen23 can synch its designers' and developers' workflow and automatically build code to underpin its design prototypes.

"We think this is the technology that bridges the gap between classically trained developers and the designers," Dawson said.

Expression is closely tied to Microsoft's Vista product wave. Expression applications will be the preferred tools for building Windows applications that leverage the graphics advances in Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), the flashy new graphical subsystem at Vista's heart. In a meta twist, Expression's developers used their evolving suite to further development on the suite -- the first time at Microsoft that software helped build itself, Key said.

Though the full suite won't be available until next year, Microsoft is releasing regular CTP builds of some of its Expression applications. The first beta version of Blend is scheduled to go live Monday, along with a new CTP of Expression Design.

Microsoft also released the first CTP of WPF/E, a Flash-like technology that Microsoft intends to bring the power of WPF to Web browsers and mobile devices. WPF/E is scheduled for a staggered release next year.