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Microsoft's designs on Adobe's turf

With a set of releases from its Expression Studio suite, Redmond is out to boost its presence in creative circles.

Microsoft is building a suite of products for Web designers and creative professionals that should step up its challenge to market leader Adobe Systems.

As a start, the company on Monday released Expression Web, a tool for designing user interfaces. It is offering the product as an upgrade to its Microsoft FrontPage Web authoring tool.

In addition, Microsoft posted a public beta download of Expression Blend, its Windows-specific design software. And in the third related announcement, it delivered an early version of Expression Design, a tool for creating logos, animations and other individual visual elements.

These three products will be in Expression Studio, set for shipping in the second quarter of 2007. The fourth product in the suite is an update to iView MediaPro, a media asset catalog program that Microsoft acquired this summer.

The product lineup could give a significant boost to Microsoft's standing in the Web design market, as it tries to lure away some of Adobe's traditional customers, said Chris Swenson, an analyst at the NPD Group.

"Adobe is a fierce competitor--they own all the major tools to create graphic design elements," Swenson said. "How does Microsoft take them on? They leverage their (programming tool) Visual Studio and price aggressively."

Microsoft Expressions

Expression Web, the first individual product available from Expression Studio, costs $99 as an upgrade from Microsoft FrontPage or $299 on its own. Adobe lists its comparable program, Dreamweaver, at $399.

When the final version of Expression Blend goes on general release, it will include Visual Studio Standard and cost $499, Microsoft said. The renamed software used to be known as "Interactive Designer" or "Sparkle."

Right now, Expression Design is available in a community technology preview, or early version. When it goes on final release, it will not be sold separately, but will appear only as part of the full $599 Expression Studio suite.

The last part of the suite is Expression Media, the upgrade to iView MediaPro. It will sell for $299 as an individual product in the first quarter of next year, Microsoft said.

Also on Monday, the software maker put out an early community technology preview of Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E). It said that Version 1 will be available in the first half of next year.

Like Adobe's Flash player, WPF/E software is a download for running Web applications with media such as video and graphics. WPF/E will run on several Web browsers: Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox for Windows and Mac OS, and Apple Computer's Safari.

Designers and developers
Microsoft has a strong following among professional programmers, with millions of coders using its flagship Visual Studio product.

But in the market for standalone Web development tools, market research firm NPD Group says Microsoft is substantially behind Adobe, which makes the popular Dreamweaver tool.

This year up to October, Adobe earned about 77 percent of the dollars spent by professionals and consumers on Web development, compared with 13 percent for Microsoft, according to NPD Group research.

With the introduction of Expression Studio product, Microsoft aims to boost its presence among Web designers, in part by making it easier for them to work with application developers.

The Expression products are built around a user interface design language called XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language), which can also be "read" by Visual Studio.

Having a common user interface language will make it easier for designers and developers to share visual elements and to collaborate on applications, said Forest Key, the director of Web/client user experience platform marketing in Microsoft's Developer Division.

"Clearly, if user experience is emerging (as important) in the industry for business and consumer-facing applications, then designers are going to be increasingly important to the (development) process," Key said.

Adobe declined to comment on Microsoft's Expression product line. But it, too, is trying to make it easier for designers and developers to work together. It has introduced a product called Flex, based on the Eclipse tool, for building Flash applications.

However, Flex is relatively new, compared with Visual Studio. There are many applications written with Visual Studio that can be modified to take advantage of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), the new presentation system in Windows, Swenson noted.

"That's the interesting race: can Adobe convince enough people to use Flex and/or learn (Adobe's Web development language) ActionScript faster than Microsoft can convince Visual Studio developers to build WPF and WPF/E applications?" Swenson said.

He anticipates that Microsoft will grow its dollar market share over the next year, from about 13 percent now to 15 percent, or possibly 20 percent.