Microsoft looks to mix it up with Adobe

Multimedia developer Jered Cuenco calls it the "gray-box application" phenomenon: A Web developer, befuddled by a graphic designer's computer-drawn mock-ups, delivers a prototype full of generic gray buttons, plain white backgrounds, oversized headlines and other crimes against visually interesting user interfaces.

"It just drives designers up a wall," said Cuenco, who works at Avenue A/Razorfish, an interactive design firm in Oregon. Such results reflect the typically clumsy workflow between designers and developers, Cuenco said. He put part of the blame on the fact that the software tools used by the respective camps don't talk well with each other.

Microsoft hopes to solve that problem with its upcoming Expression suite of Web design software. And at its Mix 06 conference in Las Vegas last week, the vendor worked to convince attendees -- most of them loyal to Adobe Systems products such as Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver -- to add Expression to their toolboxes.

The Expression software, which could be ready for release by year's end, will let designers work in drag-and-drop environments while producing underlying code in the Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML). Then they will be able to exchange the XAML code with developers creating business applications, portals and services for Windows Vista, said Microsoft officials.

Cuenco said in advance of Mix 06 that although Adobe's software may be great for developing Web-based applications for consumers, it can't compete with Vista's Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) framework for developing graphics-enhanced applications for business users.

"The things you can do in WPF, Flash can't do," Cuenco said. For example, with Expression, developers will be able to layer business applications with user interfaces that can be easily swapped out or customized by users, he said.

The combination of Vista, WPF and Expression could radically improve the usability of business applications, Web portals and miniapplications such as "gadgets" and "widgets," said Bola Rotibi, an analyst at London-based consulting firm Ovum.

"The Expression tools are pretty sophisticated," Rotibi said. "Any CIO would be foolish not to have at least one eye on what's coming and [be] thinking, 'How do I make the most of this?'"

But some potential users were much less sold on the Expression tools than Cuenco is.

Jeffrey Chiang, an interactive designer at design firm Gotomedia in San Francisco, said the user interface of the Expression Graphic Designer tool needs a lot of work to keep designers who are familiar with Adobe's products from getting frustrated.

Even if the new tools work as well as Microsoft claims they will, the company has its work cut out for it to lure users away from Adobe's tools, said Keith Cutcliffe, a Web developer at ProAssurance, a medical liability insurance provider in Birmingham, Ala.

"I don't know how they're going to do that," Cutcliffe said at Mix 06. He noted, though, that there are many more Web designers using PCs now than there were a decade ago.

Joe Wilcox, an analyst at JupiterResearch in New York, agreed that although developers may see the benefits of adopting Expression, designers may not be so quick to clamber on board. "Microsoft is operating under the presumption that when the developer and the designer work together, the developer is the lead," Wilcox said. "I'm not sure I buy that."

Elizabeth Montalbano of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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