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Microsoft Launches Expression Studio 4

Microsoft updates its Web and application design suite with streamlined features and support for Visual Studio 2010 projects.

At the Internet Week Conference Monday, Microsoft released Expression Studio 4, the latest version of the company's Web design and rich user interface (UI) development tool. Targeted at digital designers and at Visual Studio developers designing rich application UIs, Expression Studio 4 adds more robust visual tools that eliminate the need to work with Extensible Markup Language (XAML) code and provide enhanced SketchFlow functionality for enabling interactive, prototype apps.

The latest release comes just nine months after Microsoft launched Expression Studio 3. Microsoft is allowing current owners of version 3 to upgrade to Expression Studio 4 at no charge.

Dave Mendlen, senior director of Developer Marketing at Microsoft, said the company is anxious to get the message out with this version of Expression Studio.

"We think of it as a suite of professional design tools to enable designers and developers to create and enable amazing user experiences," said Mendlen. "I think we haven’t done the right level of communication to the critically important audience of developers."

The Expression Studio 4 suite consists of four modules. Expression Blend is a visual UI builder for XAML-based WPF and Silverlight apps, and includes the SketchFlow app prototyping module. Expression Web is a site designer and HTML editor, while Expression Design is a graphics design application. Expression Encoder is a digital video encoding application.

Of these, Expression Blend 4 is of greatest interest to Visual Studio developers, enabling them to manipulate working XAML code using rich, visual interfaces.

Developer Experience

Mendlen said Expression Studio appeals to two classes of developer experience: those who are working with a professional design department and must provide prototype software to kick start the design process, and those without design support and are left to create application UIs themselves. In the former instance, developers in Visual Studio and designers in Expression Blend can work on the same XAML code, passing it back and forth between them without the need for translation or conversion. Mendlen said the process is far superior to the status quo, where designers mock up interfaces as static images, which they "throw over the wall" for the developers to work against.

John Harris, senior product manager of Expression Studio at Microsoft, said his team looked at the products in the Expression suite and made what he called "obvious bets."

"With Blend we really focused on integrating into the workflow that Dave described earlier," Harris said. He singled out efforts to better integrate Expression Blend into traditional design work, as well as Blend's updated support for Visual Studio 2010 projects. He also said Blend 4 offers enhanced support for Model-View-ViewModel development, critical for Silverlight dev shops seeking to decouple UI and business logic.

Harris also said that Blend 4 provides enhanced support for robust, data driven UIs, eliminating the need to work with XAML code to create dashboard like functionality. In Blend 3, he said, "you'd have to really get into the code and do a lot of stuff."

Another important update is to the SketchFlow prototyping engine for Blend, which allows developers to quickly create working, wireframe applications to demonstrate application behaviors and interactions. Harris said the SketchFlow functionality in Blend 4 is optimized to manage feedback to the dev team.

"What we've done is integrated [SketchFlow] into SharePoint and SharePoint handles versioning of the prototypes and acts as a conduit for handling feedback to and from the development teams," Harris explained.


Beyond Blend

Expression Studio 4 continues to cater to a broader market of Web site designers and media producers, with streamlined Web site building tools and enhanced browser compatibility testing that lets designers preview their work as it would appear on different browsers. A new search engine optimization engine scans Web site projects and provides suggestions for improving your site's performance with search ranking engines.

The Expression Encoder 4 application adds support for efficient h.264 format video. It also provides real-time digital rights management (DRM) support for streaming video, said Harris. "We are able to encode video live and stream live and apply DRM to that live stream as it is being encoded in the stream."

Expression Studio 4 is available in three SKUs, with Web Professional, Premium and Ultimate editions. MSDN subscribers will receive the SKU of Expression Studio 4 corresponding to their Visual Studio 2010 license. "If you are a Visual Studio Premium customer you will get Expression Studio Premium, and if you are a Visual Studio Ultimate customer you will get Expression Studio Ultimate as part of your MSDN subscription," Mendlen explained.

Web Professional includes the Expression Web, Design and Encoder applications. Expression Premium adds the Blend dev/design package, while Ultimate adds the SketchFlow prototyping feature.

All three SKUs of Expression Studio 4 are available as part of an MSDN subscription. Retail versions of Expression Studio 4 Ultimate ($599) and Professional ($149) are also available.

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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