Expression Studio 2 review
VERDICT Plenty of design-rich development power for producing desktop EXEs - but the new browser-hosted Silverlight applications promise more than they currently deliver.
Everyone’s computing experience depends on the richness of the applications that they use both on the desktop and on the web. However there’s always been a factor holding that richness in check: a fundamental and frustrating chasm between the designer working on application presentation and the developer working on application logic. Just over a year ago Microsoft unveiled its ground-up solution to the problem and now, with Expression Studio 2, it is building on those foundations.
To solve the designer-developer problem Microsoft needed to go back to the drawing board. First it reworked Windows’ antiquated underlying Graphical Device Interface as the modern, media-friendly Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). Then it devised a simple way to control that WPF functionality in the form of eXtensible Application Markup Language (XAML). Crucially, because XAML is a declarative markup language much like HTML, it signals the end of designing your user interface (UI) in Photoshop and Illustrator and then asking the programmers to somehow reproduce it in code – XAML already is code.
Expression Studio 2 is all about producing design rich applications so advanced media handling is naturally central as shown by the inclusion of the strangely-old fashioned Media 2 (see page ) and of the far more impressive video preparation tool Encoder 2 (see page ). To handle and create graphics, Expression Studio 2 provides Expression Design 2, an application only available as part of the suite.
Before its initial release, rumour had it that Design would simultaneously take on both Photoshop and Illustrator for bitmap and vector handling but sadly that proved way off the mark. Expression Design 2 still isn’t creatively exciting, but it is more than capable of knocking up attractive icons and other UI chrome. Forget Photoshop and Illustrator; think Fireworks. It’s a practical role that is enhanced in this latest release by the new ability to slice layouts which can then be output to multiple bitmap formats – JPG, PNG etc – or exported directly to different flavours of XAML complete with referenced copies of any embedded bitmaps. It’s this XAML-based graphical support role for Expression Blend 2 (see page ), the Expression Studio’s central module for UI design, that is Design’s core purpose.
The great strength of XAML is that once the designer has created their user interface in Blend, including any graphics and media from Design and Encoder, they can then simply hand over their code to the programmer to add the application logic in Visual Studio ready for final deployment as a design-rich WPF-based EXE. This hand-in-hand working is great but means that, without integrated coding and deployment capabilities, Expression Blend isn’t actually a complete development solution. That’s not an option for the full Studio suite so Microsoft’s only option is to - quietly and no doubt reluctantly - throw in a copy of the Standard Edition of the latest Visual Studio 2008 (worth £225).
XAML clearly has a central role to play for efficient desktop application development, but Microsoft has always had much bigger plans for the format - plans that Studio 2 begins to realise. The problem with WPF-based applications is that they are inherently tied to the Windows desktop through their need for the .NET Framework. However by providing support for a subset of WPF presentational functionality through a browser plug-in player, XAML can act as the springboard to take Expression-created applications onto the web as Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). That’s exactly what Microsoft’s Flash-style, cross-platform, cross-browser Silverlight player is designed to enable.
To help unleash its army of desktop developers onto the web, Expression Studio 2 sees Silverlight functionality added across the board. In Design 2 you can now output graphics to Silverlight-flavoured XAML; in Encoder 2 you can select from a range of customisable Silverlight players for your video; and in Blend 2 you can simply decide to create a Silverlight web application rather than desktop EXE. Silverlight also helps make full sense of the inclusion of Expression Web 2 (see page ) as part of the Studio. Web is Microsoft’s standards-compliant replacement to the much-criticised FrontPage. Now with XAML acting as a markup-based rival to Flash’s binary SWF format, Expression Web 2 has a major weapon with which it can challenge Dreamweaver.
This all sounds ominous for Silverlight, Expression Studio and for Microsoft itself. However it’s only a temporary situation. The Silverlight 2 player is already in beta and it seriously extends its WPF presentational support and, crucially, adds programming support for a range of powerful .NET languages. It’s with Silverlight 2 that Flash will begin to face a challenge worthy of the name and Microsoft will have a web platform worthy of serious promotion.
Expression Studio 2 is a proof of principle for future web development but currently the suite’s many practical strengths are still only fully realised for desktop development. With Microsoft already looking beyond this set of releases towards Silverlight 2 and Studio 3, most end users will do the same.
EASE OF USE 5/6
VALUE FOR MONEY 5/6
Tom Arah is the webmaster of designer-info.com. He has been a professional designer working with computer software since 1987. He also offers training and consultancy and since 1997 has been the contributing editor covering design issues for PC Pro, the UK's biggest-selling (and best) computer monthly.