Microsoft offers development tools for Mac, Web

Company readies tools for Mac OS and AJAX-style Web applications, while striving to keep Windows on forefront of "user experience."

LOS ANGELES--Even as it steers developers toward the forthcoming edition of Windows, Microsoft is building tools to write applications for the Mac OS and the Web.

At the company's Professional Developers Conference this week, Microsoft said it will allow programmers to use its latest front-end development tools to write applications that run on operating systems other than Windows Vista, the forthcoming edition of desktop Windows.

The company introduced Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere, or WPF/E, software to build applications using Microsoft's XAML page layout language in conjunction with JavaScript.

Until this week, it was thought that Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation, formerly code-named Avalon, could be used only to build graphics-rich applications on Windows. But because JavaScript runs on many operating systems, developers could, in theory, use WPF/E tooling to target several operating systems.

Apple's Mac OS will be one of the operating systems supported with WPF/E, as well as older versions of Windows and Microsoft Smartphone, according to Microsoft executives. And other operating systems are planned, said Forrest Key, group product manager in Microsoft's developer tools division, without confirming plans for Linux support.

"About a year ago, we realized that we needed to have a broad reach," Key said, which led to the development of WPF/E. "There will be more platforms to come."

The Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere software will be available when Windows Vista ships in the second half of next year, Key said. A prototype of the Mac OS edition is running at Microsoft now, said another Microsoft executive, who asked not to be named.

Presentation Foundation Everywhere is a subset of the full user interface tooling available in Windows Presentation Foundation on Windows and, as such, will not enable the same graphical richness as Windows. End users will need to download a "run time" for running XAML code, which will be less than 1 megabyte.

"What we found from a user experience perspective is that the best thing, clearly, is to present a continuum of technologies and highlight how they can be used together," Key said.

At the PDC this week, Microsoft executives played up the importance of presentation design in many ways. Since most companies have public Web sites, they'll increasingly need to differentiate themselves on "user experience" in software, executives said.

To that end, Microsoft introduced on Tuesday its Expression-branded family of design-related tools, which are expected to come out in late 2006. Those products are aimed at easing the process of building applications that incorporate animation and multimedia for Windows or Web browsers.

Part of the Expression line is Microsoft's Sparkle Interactive Designer tool, which uses XAML to create animations and other graphic-rich front ends. The tool is considered a competitor to Adobe's Flash format, which is widely used for Web graphics.

The importance of clean and effective design holds true for both public-facing Web sites and internal business applications, noted Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. For example, a poor sales application will discourage salespeople from inputting customer information until they absolutely have to, which prevents the employer from getting good information on incoming sales.

Web or Windows?
Meanwhile, Microsoft introduced initiatives this week geared specifically at building Web-only applications.

The company handed out an early version of Atlas, a "framework" that works in conjunction with Microsoft's flagship Visual Studio tool for building so-called AJAX-style applications. AJAX Web applications use modern standards such as Dynamic HTML to create interactive Web applications that can tap into server-side data.

In an Atlas demonstration Tuesday, company executives showed how an application written using the Atlas toolkit, which is built around JavaScript coding, can run unchanged on the Safari browser on Mac OS.

In other Web development-related initiatives, Microsoft introduced "gadgets," graphics-rich components that can run in the Windows Vista Sidebar window or SideShow, a secondary screen that can be attached, for example, to the lid of a laptop or to a keyboard.

For online Web applications, developers can create gadgets that run on Start.com, an MSN incubator site that allows users to combine information from many sources, notably including RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, in a customizable page. Start.com launched a developer center on Wednesday. Using the Atlas toolkit, developers can build gadgets that act as add-ons to Start.com.

The combination of front-end development options can be confusing for developers, said Paul Colton, CEO of Xamlon, which this week introduced its own front-end tools for building Web applications using Visual Studio.

"There's some conflict there--on the one hand, you have Atlas for doing cross-platform Windows applications. On the other, you have Windows Presentation Foundation to keep developers on the (Windows) platform," Colton said. "It's not clear for developers, but I think the market will drive it more than Microsoft."

Microsoft executives discount the idea that the company is conflicted regarding presentation technology. Windows Vista "smart client" applications that take full advantage of the three dimensions, vector graphics and animations will set themselves apart from even interactive Web applications, said Greg Sullivan, group product manager in charge of the Windows Vista client.

"We're investing in a wide range of models," Sullivan said. "The new kind of applications ISVs (independent software vendors) can make (with Windows Vista) will be dramatically different from what's possible with the Web application model. I think it's clearly differentiated."

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