More than meets the eye in Microsoft plan

The software giant lays out a plan for new graphics software that will run on non-Windows systems and take on Adobe's Flash.

A little-known Microsoft project promises to bring advanced graphics to a broad range of devices and set up a potential showdown with Adobe Systems.

Microsoft executives provided technical detail and anticipated ship dates for a product code-named Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E) at the Mix '06 conference last week.

The goal of WPF/E, which should be available in the first half of next year, is to bring a significant portion of the slick look and feel of Windows Vista--the update to Microsoft's Windows client software--to other operating systems and non-Microsoft browsers. WPF/E software can display video, two-dimensional vector graphics, and animations but stops short of the full 3D graphics and document rendering capabilities available in Vista, according to the company.

Microsoft said it will create versions of the WPF/E software for Windows XP, Windows 2000, the Firefox browser, the Mac's native Safari browser, and mobile phones. Microsoft will rely on third-party companies to make editions of WPF/E for Linux and non-Windows Mobile phones, executives said.

The development of WPF/E signals a stepped-up commitment to building software that can run on operating systems other than Windows, analysts said. That's a major shift for the company, which admits it only paid lip service to the concept in years past. "Maybe in the past when we said 'everywhere' we didn't really mean everywhere. Now we really mean it," said Forest Key, director of product management for Microsoft's Expression designer tools. "We want to support the widest breadth of scenarios from the browser to the desktop."

As part of that shift, Microsoft said it will allow developers to use its mainstay development languages, C# and Visual Basic, to write applications for other operating systems and devices, including the Mac.

To run WPF/E applications, machines will need to have software to render the graphical elements. In that sense, WPF/E will be an alternative to Adobe's popular Flash software, which displays interactive graphics, animations and multimedia in Web browsers.

Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere

Although Microsoft is spending plenty of time talking about its front-end development strategy, analysts and industry executives note that the software is not yet available and that some important details are still missing. In addition, Vista itself has been delayed once again and isn't expected in wide distribution until January.

In particular, developers and designers will need to know precisely how WPF/E stacks up to the full-blown presentation capabilities Microsoft is preparing for Windows Vista and Windows XP, said David Temkin, chief technology officer at Laszlo Systems, which sells interactive Web development tools that compete with Microsoft.

"It's interesting to hear that they'll be 'subsetting' or 'de-featuring' on other platforms--that's a little bit of a red flag," Temkin said. "One thing that's been critical to Flash's success is that all the features work everywhere."

In addition, Temkin said it's important to see how easy it will be for end users to get WPF/E on non-Microsoft software, which will require browser plug-ins in some cases. "Fundamentally, they're introducing a new plug-in into the browser market. It's been some time since vendors have done this," he noted.

Still, Temkin said Laszlo may support Microsoft's upcoming presentation software in its own tool set, which right now can generate rich-client applications that run within browsers using Flash or using AJAX by the end of the year.

Developer story
Microsoft's push into the graphics market relies heavily on the strong position it has with mainstream software developers, built up over the years through products like Visual Basic and Visual Studio.

Vista includes a revamped look and feel. Developers write applications that take advantage of the sophisticated graphics in Vista, such as 3D images and vector graphics, through APIs (application programming interfaces). To display those applications, Windows machines need software called Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF).

WPF will run on Vista and Windows XP, the current version of desktop Windows. With WPF/E, Microsoft is hoping that developers will use its tools to write Vista applications and then alter them slightly to run them on other operating systems and browsers, said Microsoft's Key.

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