Expression Studio breaks down web design barriers

Hot skills: Microsoft suite eliminates error-prone manual work

What is it?

Microsoft Expression Studio is a suite of design and media applications aimed at web designers who want to collaborate more closely with Visual Studio developers.

In the past, these people have worked in silos demarcated by different tool sets with incompatible file formats. In practice, developers are often likely to be designing the user interface too, and it is these people who Microsoft expects Expression Studio to appeal to.

The object is partly to make web application user interfaces as rich as desktop applications, partly to extend the .net Framework to areas it has not been reaching, and partly to win market share from Adobe/Macromedia, whose Photoshop, Flash and other applications are the de facto standards.

Although Microsoft is not yet ready to displace Adobe, some analysts believe that Expression Studio could be more important for Microsoft than Windows Vista.

Where did it originate?

The Expression family was first announced at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in 2005. The "release to manufacturing" of Expression Studio was at Microsoft's Mix 07 conference at the end of April.

What's it for?

Expression Studio consists of:

● Expression Web, an HTML editor and web design program which replaces Frontpage

● Expression Blend, previously known as Interactive Designer, which adds interactivity

● Expression Design, previously called Graphic Designer, a raster and vector graphics editor

● Expression Media, a digital asset manager based on the iView Media product, which Microsoft acquired in 2006, and which includes Expression Media Encoder.

Blend and Design have native support for XAML, Microsoft's Extensible Application Markup Language, and much of Expression Studio has been built using WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation). XAML and WPF are key elements of .net Framework 3.0.

Microsoft says it offers some of the best support for standards such as XML, XHTML, XSLT, Javascript, and especially Cascading Style Sheets. However, the different applications rely on the .net Framework 2.0 or 3.0, and Active Server Pages (ASP) .net is the only server-side technology supported. This is bad news not only for users of Macromedia's Coldfusion, but also for people using "classic" ASP. Visual Studio is another requirement, but people going the Express Studio route are unlikely to be using anything else.

Expression Web, Expression Blend and Expression Media can all be purchased separately, but Expression Design is only available as part of Expression Studio.

What makes it special?

Expression Studio and Visual Studio use the same file formats, which should eliminate a lot of error-prone manual work, such as dealing with the incompatibilities between Visual Studio and Adobe products such as Photoshop.

What systems does it run on?

Microsoft platforms only, except for Expression Media, which because of its history as iView Mediapro also supports Mac OSX.

What's coming up?

A version of Expression Blend 2.0 that will support the development of animated, interactive applications for Silverlight, Microsoft's challenger to Flash.

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See Microsoft's Expression site for downloads and resources, including a 60-day trial version of Expression Web, and for more general web design topics. Get-started video tuition is included with Expression products, or it can be bought separately.

Rates of pay

Web designers working with Visual Studio can expect to earn between £25,000 and £35,000.

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