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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.

"The idea is that you can target the richest part of the user experience, which is 90 percent of the machines out there with Vista and XP, and also target a subset with the same design and the same code," he said.

When it delivers Vista and accompanying tools, developers can write full-blown Vista applications and have them display in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser and Firefox on Windows using WPF.

With WPF/E, developers can write less functional front-ends for Safari or Firefox on the Mac with a choice of languages--JavaScript or Microsoft-specific languages C# and Visual Basic. The visual layout and other graphical elements are built with XAML, a new Microsoft language meant to ease interactions between developers and designers.

To display WPF/E applications, machines will need a browser plug-in, which can potentially be packaged with an application beforehand, Key said. Microsoft is also providing a tool set called Atlas for interactive Web browser applications. But they will not be as graphically rich as WPF/E applications and cannot show vectors or video, for example.

Microsoft will release licensing details for WPF/E in the coming months, Key said. "We want anyone to build support for XAML and WPF/E, including Java or Symbian-based cell phones, and Linux," he said.

Still the big dogs?
The full range of user interface tools Microsoft is amassing underscores the company's growing commitment to the Web application designer market, said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at Burton Group. He noted that the company has had mixed success in appealing to designers in the past.

"We're seeing a more enlightened Microsoft. Back in 1998, they would've tried to tell people to use their stuff more exclusively," O'Kelly said. "Microsoft is saying to application developers: Don't default to Flash."

That strategy doesn't worry Adobe, just yet anyway. "We are the big dogs in the designer market, and we're going to continue to grow that market," said Todd Hay, director of platform marketing and developer relations at Adobe.

"Our strategy is that you have a very consistent and predictable experience," Hay said. "As a developer, you don't have to think whether there's a full set on one operating system and a subset on alternatives."

Hay said Adobe has also successfully driven upgrades to its latest version of Flash. More than 50 percent of customers have upgraded in the past six months, he said.

And, as Microsoft seeks to make incursions into Adobe's customer base, Adobe is returning the favor. Adobe has invested in more robust Flash authoring tools called Flex and has aligned itself with Eclipse, an open-source equivalent to Microsoft's flagship development tool Visual Studio which is popular with Java programmers.

Adobe has the advantage of being the incumbent and designers are often loyal to the Mac, company executives note. Microsoft's Expression tools, which are aimed at designers and due in the first quarter next, are expected to run on Windows.

Miguel de Icaza, Novell vice president of development in charge of the Mono project, which brings Microsoft development software to Linux and Unix, said he sees advantages to WPF/E.

But he said Microsoft's user interface strategy could be a "slippery slope" that could tempt developers to write Windows or Internet Explorer-only applications."

"It won't be an issue for the public Web, but developers inside corporations or those shipping to specific clients will likely continue the trend of 'You need IE to view this page' when they depend on the "extras," de Icaza wrote via e-mail. "It will now be 'You need the full WPF, so you need Vista for running that.'"

The advantage of using WPF is that applications can fully exploit graphics hardware as well as the communications and workflow "plumbing" built into Windows Vista, noted O'Kelly.

"The implicit bet on Microsoft's part is that developers will find that what they can do with the full features set of Vista will be significantly compelling relative to what they can't do on Vista," he said.