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Microsoft Expression Studio: Microsoft's Designs on Designers

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Microsoft Expression Studio Review from The Creative COW Magazine


Creative COW Magazine presents Microsoft Expression Studio: Microsoft's Designs on Designers



Tim WilsonTim Wilson
Boston Massachusetts, USA

©2007 Tim Wilson and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:

In this software review of Microsoft Expression Studio, Tim Wilson takes a look at what sort of leverage Microsoft could put behind its new software package, Microsoft Expression Studio... Adobe is the 800 pound graphics gorilla, with massive market share among designers. Meet Microsoft, the 8 thousand pound gorilla. They're coming - and they're going to keep on coming. Microsoft's Expression Studio includes Expression Media, Expression Web, Expression Design and Expression Blend. Microsoft says the suite is targeted at creative pros, not business.


In December of 2006, Microsoft Corp. introduced Expression Studio, a product suite designed to improve user experience of the web and web applications. It's part of a bold plan to put designers in the driver's seat previously occupied by developers and engineers - to, as Microsoft says, "design ultimate experiences."

Really?

Brad Becker, Senior Product Manager for Microsoft Expression Studio, was kind enough to make a previously-unplanned trip to meet me in Boston when I couldn't meet him in New York. I still couldn't help observing, "Y'know, Microsoft isn't the first company that comes to mind when I think about enabling designers." Expression Studio

Brad smiled, but he didn't hesitate. "I think Microsoft deserves more credit for design than we get." Of course he's right: the Intellimouse and Natural Ergonomic Keyboard I'm using as I type this, Windows Media Center Edition, Windows Live, URGE, Vista, and Xbox are a few examples of the increasingly diverse design tasks that Microsoft is getting right. "We're also conscious that we can keep getting better," says Brad. "What you're seeing now is us intentionally bringing those design efforts in the forefront."

You may ask yourself, how did they get here?

In addition to a trial download of the now shipping Expression Web, the rest of the Studio - Expression Blend, Expression Design, and Expression Media - are all available as public betas or technology previews at Microsoft. com.

microsoft.com/design offers more insights into what they acknowledge is a changing culture at Microsoft, aiming "to create products that people will love." Brad found their aggressive moves in that direction appealing.

He learned a little about enabling designers at his previous gigs, Senior Product Designer and Senior User Experience Consultant at Macromedia.

Specifically, he helped design that Flash thing we're hearing so much about, for example, as the sole designer of Flash MX 2004. As part of the user experience team, he had lots and lots of contact with end users, getting direct feedback from them as he watched them work. It was a critical part of building Flash as we know it, and it's underway at Microsoft as well.

I asked him who Expression Studio is for. Business users who want to go further than FrontPage can, or who want to add dynamic elements to business communications? In other words, tip-toeing around Adobe. Nope.

Microsoft is coming straight at web design professionals, among whom Windows is doing just fine, thank you. "As much as 80 percent of designers focused on Web and interactive design are on Windows workstations," said Forest Key, product manager for Expression Studio, in CRN magazine. "There is the mystique of the Mac in the design community but not so in the Web interactive community."

Key's background includes ILM and the original development team for Puffin's Commotion, but he learned about web design at Macromedia, where he was the Senior Product Manager for, you guessed it, Flash.


WHAT'S NEXT

Desktop publishing, desktop video, website and interactive design, and now, what I like to call the "Fourth Revolution": application design by actual designers.

Much of this takes place in Expression Blend. On its surface, it looks like a simplified version of Flash, but I'm more intrigued by where it's going. Blend is Flashstyle interactive design, but it also explicitly serves as a desktop application development tool for designers.

Rather than build an interface mock-up in an art program, then try to get developers to engineer the application that the designer intended, Blend allows designers to design functioning interfaces, how they act, and then hand them over to a developer only if they need to. And they may not.

Adobe is working in the same direction, of course, and while they're well down this path - with both Flex and the platform they've code-named Apollo - Microsoft has the resources for patience.

Microsoft Design
Microsoft's www.microsoft.com/design website offers insights into what they acknowledge is a changing culture at Microsoft, aiming "to create products that people will love."


STARTING SLOW

Microsoft has a long history of starting slow. They came late to web browsers, and Firefox notwithstanding, their market share remains in the 85%-ish range.

For anyone keeping score at home, it's Firefox around 11%, and Safari, 3%. Apple's mid-80s sales were ten-times bigger than Microsoft's who'd been in business two years longer, and ten years later, Microsoft's sales are ten-times bigger.

It appears they may not be so patient this time. We got an email from Microsoft's Rob Pulciani with the sig "Create raving fans; satisfied customers are not good enough." A follow-up email led to a phone call to get the ball rolling - and it all happened on Christmas day!

What he told us is the definition of "resources:" at the three events that are part of the "ExpressionSession07" road show, Microsoft will provide breakfast, lunch and a cocktail party between their presentations. Everyone who attends gets a free copy of Expression Web now, and the rest of the $599 suite when it ships mid-year. You can find more details about the tour at CreativeCOW. net, and Microsoft might have something about it on their site, too.


TWO 8,000 POUND GORILLAS?

Who, really, is the 8,000 pound gorilla in this fight? One answer is obvious. Microsoft had a little more than 20-times Adobe's revenues in 2005 (the last complete fiscal year for both). `Nuff said.

Still, there's far more to the story than what is obvious.

It's equally obvious that Adobe is the 8,000 pound gorilla. Sure, Windows is dominant in web design, but let's be honest, computer OS is barely relevant in light of today's modern design platform: Adobe. Creative pros think of their experience with Adobe tools and the ubiquitous Adobe interface as a genuine investment that has turned into user equity.

As bet-hedging as it sounds, I truly don't see anything in their histories to suggest either company rolling over for the other. Nobody has gotten rich shorting Microsoft. Adobe has a massive advantage, including core businesses that are up 50% year on year. Anybody want to bet against that either?

In the meantime, there is plenty to see, and even more to talk about. It's all going to get very interesting from here.


Total Training for Microsoft Expression Web

Another sign that Microsoft is taking the design community seriously is their partnership with Total Training. The two hours of sample tutorials included with Expression Web offer a peek into Total Training's comprehensive two-disk, 10-hour DVD-ROM series, available for $99.

It's Total Training, so you have some idea of what to expect. Exhaustive coverage of the application and its underlying technologies, engagingly presented. The Expression Web tutorials are hosted by Janine Warner, noted author of more than a dozen books about the internet and 19 hours of Dreamweaver instruction for Total Training.

The highlights I've found so far start with a close look at cascading style sheets (CSS), one of the foundations of modern website design. I feel comfortable with the basics of site design, and very comfortable indeed with the designer's visual approach to site construction. Handtuning code? Not so much.

If you're in a similar boat, I recommend skipping ahead to disk two, to the chapter called Survival HTML & CSS. It gets you quickly past the basics and into the really fun parts of tweaking code. (Yes, there are fun parts of tweaking code, even for squeamish designers like me.)

I confess that I started with the last chapter, Expression Web Tips and Tricks. Even though I didn't have the background to actually do anything with them yet, I found myself getting pumped to dig deeper, faster than I might have if I'd done everything in order.

No matter which order you feel like taking them in, 10 hours of Janine's training for $99 is a no-brainer.


Janine Warner of Total Training
Janine Warner, your host for the comprehensive Total Training 10-hour tour of Microsoft Expression Web



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