Review: Can Microsoft's Expression Studio challenge Adobe?

Redmond makes a foray into the design-suite space with this bundle of four applications. How do they stack up, individually and together -- and should Adobe be worried?

Whenever Microsoft introduces a genuinely new set of products, it's always worth paying close attention. The company doesn't always hit, particularly the first time -- the early versions of Internet Explorer, for example, were just plain terrible -- but over time it learns lessons that you sometimes only learn by being an underdog. What's more, Redmond can usually be relied on to stay in the game.

The company's new Expression Studio suite ($599) brings together four programs that stake out some new territories for Microsoft and strengthen the company's presence in existing ones. Expression Web is the latest incarnation of FrontPage, an adjunct to Microsoft Office, while Expression Design, Expression Blend and Expression Media are entirely new applications. They're meant to work together as a design suite for the Web and for desktop applications, especially as a way to support Microsoft's Silverlight technology and the .Net platform in general.

Silverlight is intended as a competitor to Adobe's Flash in some respects: It lets you run rich Internet applications in a browser but also includes some more advanced features like JavaScript functionality (you can command a Silverlight app with JavaScript) and AJAX (a Silverlight app can dynamically load content from somewhere else). To that end, Expression Studio is the first iteration of a set of tools to allow people to create those apps.

The tools can be used on their own for other things -- if you just want to pick up Expression Web and use that to work on your existing Web site, you can do so -- but it's clear that Microsoft wants this to be the first step toward making Silverlight as common a presence on the Web as Flash itself. For now, the individual pieces are intriguing, and I'll examine each of them in turn.

First, a note about Expression Studio's availability. Right now, all four applications in the suite are available as fully functional, 60-day trial downloads -- a good way to get your hands on them before they are officially released.

The current iteration of the suite contains Expression Blend 1.0 -- discussed below -- but Blend 2.0 is already in a preview (i.e., beta) form with a 180-day trial period. (My guess is that 2.0 will be released long after both Blend 1.0 and the full Studio product are out in stores, and people who bought Blend in either form will get a free upgrade.)

Also only available in its free trial form is Expression Media Encoder, which converts video into the VC-1 codec used by Silverlight.

Expression Web ($299 individually; $99 when upgrading from FrontPage)

Microsoft Expression Web is what Microsoft FrontPage should have been all along, and the only shame of it is that it took Microsoft this long to get it right.

Among Web designers, FrontPage rightfully earned the status of a running joke. It generated bloated HTML jammed with proprietary tags; it was a terrible pain to use with FTP; and the mere thought of FrontPage extensions, those proprietary server-side additions that created more directory clutter and security issues than usable features, were enough to send people screaming into the night.

Small wonder Microsoft dropped the name "FrontPage" entirely and decided to pitch Expression Web as a wholly new application (although you can pick up Expression Web for $99 if you have an existing edition of FrontPage). There's another successor of sorts to FrontPage called SharePoint Designer, but it's used to build sites only in SharePoint itself -- Microsoft's enterprise-level collaboration tool -- and isn't intended as a general-purpose Web design app.

Expression Web's interface and layout are still very much like FrontPage's: a tree for the site you're currently editing, an editing pane that can be toggled or split between raw code and WYSIWYG editing, and so on. This immediately separates it from the rest of the Expression suite apps, which look radically different; but by doing this, Microsoft has kept the best parts of FrontPage's classic look and feel to retain existing users, while at the same time retooling the program from the inside out to be strongly standards-compliant.

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