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Microsoft Expression tools

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Watching demos of Microsoft's Expression tools and XAML-based presentation experience at this event, I was left somewhat unmoved. Very slick, and the User Experience merits more attention of course, but haven't I seen this all before – OS/2 Workplace Shell (updated Presentation Manager) and OpenDoc, perhaps?

Workplace Shell supported a richer UI than MS could manage at the time and built on ideas from IBM's SAA (System Application Architecture) CUA (Common User Access) initiative. This separated the Presentation Layer from the rest of an application, and used ideas from Apple Computer's Human Interface Guidelines), among other influences. CUA still influences the design of the human-computer interface.

I assume WIN FX etc is an advance on Workplace Shell - but since I last saw an OS/2 demo about 10 years ago, so it should be. With OpenDoc, OS/2 could do some really neat things. Separating the presentation layer from the business logic layer is a good idea, but it's not new.

What might have been interesting, more interesting than the demos of cool prototypes, would have been a comparison of what Microsoft is doing now with previous approaches to delivering a rich user experience - Flash, perhaps even OS/2 Presentation Manager - explaining why they failed and why Microsoft's new approach will succeed. Perhaps OS/2 was just ahead of its time.

Photo of Conchango waxes enthusiastic about Expression. Mind you, I may be being a little unfair - I was watching marketroids (albeit technically competent ones) doing what they do best, and the demos were impressive. However, talking with Parimal Deshpande (WinFX Product Manager from MS Corp about how MS plans to help ISVs build applications which "deliver superior user experiences" was far more rewarding.

He explained that Microsoft is addressing both the platform itself (with WinFX and Windows Presentation Foundation or WPF; ”WPF/E”), and providing designer-oriented tools for the platform (Microsoft Expression), as well as traditional developer tools (Visual Studio). Actually talking to designers as a community on equal terms, and making sure their designs can be imported directly into the developer environment (programmers and end users often have different ideas about what makes an effective UI) should help improve the quality of UI implementation.

Microsoft’s Expression initiative is also designed to encourage third-party vendors to enrich the environment with tools; examples are Aurora from Mobiform and electricrain’s ZAM3D; as well as components such as those from Infragistics.

The discussion touched on the business value associated with the User Interfaces (consider the value of being White to iPod, for example) and the difficulty of breaking down the general value into the value-add of the individual pieces - what you can't put a metric on, you probably can't manage.

Then we identified the real issue here - it's not technology that matters in the end, but aligning technology with business culture. One benefit of good UI is fewer mistakes, but sometimes perhaps mistakes (call them "explorations") are part of the fun and help generate new ideas. Another benefit is productivity - but that doesn't sell in India (wasting headcount isn't, yet, an issue there). And, the USA values the appearance of individuality; China values the appearance of conformity.

All this UI stuff really is an enabler for better business practice – but, it seems to me, unless you are the sort of mature organisation which says what it is going to do, measures what it actually does and applies feedback to bring reality more in line with aspiration, there's nothing much to usefully enable.

Expression Interactive Designer is great, then - but it could become just a great toy for the IT group; and towards the end of the presentation proper I seemed to have mostly heard about the technology, not the underlying issues affecting user experience. However, things got a little better in this area in the Q&A at the end, although I was somewhat puzzled when Wayne Smith, originally from Macromedia (now in Adobe and responsible for what is, potentially, one of the most impressive UI building technologies; one which, in practice, builds some of the most annoying UIs) referred to XML as Microsoft's standard data storage mechanism.

I thought that XML was simply a way of describing data, a markup language (and one needing external semantics too). But perhaps Microsoft is overhyping its technology again - it should perhaps look at the history of the RDBMS (Relational DataBase Management System - which is a much richer data storage technology than XML, although the "R" part is purely logical, it's the "MS" which addresses physical storage) and the problems it hit when people tried to map logical relational tables directly into physical storage (it was slow).

You can look at the Expression family of design tools for yourself, of course. Perhaps most immediately interesting to developers is the last tool in the family (complementing Expression Graphic Designer and Expression Interactive Designer): Microsoft Expression Web Designer (EWD), a professional design tool for creating standards-based web sites and applications. This has just been released as a community technology preview (CTP), for free download, here. ®

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