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Microsoft adds to graphics software palette

Company readies a new test release of Acrylic while it plots out a second tool for graphics designers.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
Microsoft is readying at least two new products aimed at professional designers as part of an aggressive push into the graphics software market.

On Monday, the company is expected to release a second test version of a program code-named Acrylic that's aimed at allowing designers to easily create art for Web pages. Microsoft released an initial prerelease version of the Acrylic software in June. So far, there have been 200,000 downloads of the product, said Forest Key, a group product manager in Microsoft's developer division.

Key also confirmed that Microsoft is working on a separate graphics product, which was recently described by server and tools chief Eric Rudder during a presentation at a company meeting for financial analysts.


What's new:
A Microsoft executive confirms that the software giant is in fact readying a second new graphics product--Expressions Studio.

Bottom line:
Along with the product code-named Acrylic and the new Metro printing engine, Redmond's moves could be seen as a direct assault on Adobe Systems, though Microsoft execs have sought to downplay the competitive threat to Adobe.

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"We mentioned before that we're doing a new suite for designers; we're going to call that Microsoft Expressions Studio," Rudder said at the event in Redmond, Wash. "We'll have some very cool tools that combine the best of vector, some very cool tools for animation."

Although some observers had assumed he was referring to Acrylic, Key said Rudder was referring to a new, second product. He would not offer any further details on the Expressions Studio product, or how it differs from Acrylic. Adding to the confusion, Acrylic is based on a program called Expression that Microsoft obtained as part of its 2003 acquisition of Creature House.

The new graphics products, along with Microsoft's Metro printing engine--which has been described by some analysts as a "PDF killer"--add up to what could be seen as a direct assault on rival Adobe Systems, which sells the popular Illustrator and Photoshop tools.

An Adobe representative was not immediately available for comment.

Microsoft executives have sought to downplay the competitive threat to Adobe. Key said that Acrylic is largely complementary to the graphics tools already on the market.

Adobe has largely avoided competition with Microsoft over the years by concentrating on areas that the software giant tended to neglect. However, with Windows Vista--the next release of Windows that was formerly code-named Longhorn--Microsoft has taken a greater interest in the graphics tools market.

As part of Vista, Microsoft has developed a more advanced graphical presentation system, called Windows Presentation Foundation. That graphics system--developed under the code name Avalon--will also be made available separately as an add-on for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Acrylic and Microsoft Expressions Studio are aimed at making it easier to build Web applications on top of Windows Presentation Foundation, which Microsoft hopes will in turn lead to greater sales of Vista.

Avalon will "better equip Microsoft to compete for developer hearts and minds in the battle to maintain desktop dominance," according to a recent report from Forrester Research.

Rudder noted in his talk to Wall Street analysts that any revenue Microsoft generates from its graphics business will represent new growth for the company.

"That's all upside for us today, because we don't really play there," Rudder said.

Tie-ins to Office, other software
Although images created in Acrylic can be output to all kinds of media, the focus with the tool is to help design images that can be used in Web site creation and for PowerPoint presentations. One of the new features in this test version is the capability of pasting images from Acrylic into PowerPoint, Microsoft's presentation software and part of the company's Office bundle, while retaining their transparency.

Another new feature in the updated test version is the ability to take designs created in Acrylic and export them in Extensible Application Markup Language, or XAML, a new file format Microsoft has created as a means of tapping into the next-generation graphics engine, which will debut with Vista. This means that developers can use familiar tools to design software interfaces, but then export their projects into code that developers can put directly into their software.

"You can then start to put together some very impressive applications," Key said.

Although Microsoft is building XAML options into Acrylic, the company also is looking for other software makers to include such abilities in their products. So far, no big-name companies have publicly committed to offering the functionality, though Microsoft said a few smaller outfits have.

At the same time, one of Microsoft's evangelists, Michael Swanson, last month posted a blog on how he had created an XAML export tool as an add-on to Adobe's Illustrator by using the company's software development kit. He posted the software as a free download.

The goal of having the XAML output, Key said, is so that designers can see their work directly added to software code. Today, he said, it is more typical for a designer to create a look in an illustration tool and for programmers to attempt to use code to closely mimic that design. With Acrylic, he said, "that discrepancy goes away."

Key would not say when a final version of Acrylic might ship, but he said its development is ahead of Windows Vista, which is slated to debut by the end of next year. As for Acrylic's pricing, Key said it would be in the range "of what professional tools for this audience cost."

Acrylic combines vector and pixel-based design capabilities. Vector graphics are composed of points or lines, while pixel, or bitmap graphics are typically photographic images.

The new Acrylic download is 81MB in size and is free. It will expire at the end of December, Microsoft said.