Building the New Windows Experience

For years, Windows has been lambasted for what many see as an inferior user experience when compared to operating systems such as Apple's Mac OS X. But at this year's PDC, Microsoft hopes that its efforts to emphasize the user experience in Windows Vista will begin to allay those criticisms.

To help developers create better user experiences in Windows, Microsoft on Wednesday introduced the Expression family of products. The new brand includes "Acrylic," a graphics creation program for bitmap and vector graphics; "Sparkle," a 2-D and 3-D animation tool; and "Quartz" for creating advanced Web sites.

Unlike its previous efforts at building design applications, Microsoft says Expression is targeted toward the professional. The real focus at PDC 2005 appears to be on Acrylic and Sparkle, and Microsoft hopes developers will latch onto the new tools in order to make better user experiences.

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And there's a reason for that, says developer Robert McLaws, a Microsoft MVP and author of LonghornBlogs. "It's not always the case, but more often than not developers are not great communicators. Building user interfaces is all about communicating intent," McLaws told BetaNews at the conference.

Instead of relying on a separate team, developers are often forced to design the external interface along with the code underneath. And the end result is often less than stellar. Expression is aimed at solving that problem, says Wayne Smith, senior European product manager for the Expression family.

Right now, it's just too difficult or expensive to develop a good user experience, Smith told BetaNews in an interview. "We're targeting these people we like to call des-devs. They do a little of both."

Smith said that the tools would enable developers to easily take advantage of support for vector-based graphics within Vista's Presentation Foundation, as well as to enhance the look and feel of applications running within the new operating system.

Smith also clarified that while speculation had previously placed Sparkle as a competitor to Flash, the program is "about Windows applications."

Like Flash, Sparkle does create animations and an object can be exported as a WBA file for viewing in a Web browser. But Sparkle's being angled as an interface tool and is tightly integrated with Visual Studio, even utilizing the same build mechanism for executable files, Smith explained.

Microsoft sees Expression as vital to ensuring that developers match the user experience it plans to deliver in Windows Vista. The tools draw directly upon the WinFX foundation in the operating system and simplify the creation of advanced interface elements.

"If you got no tools, [Vista's] not going to go anywhere," Smith said.

Customers play an important role in the process as well. Microsoft released a community technology preview of Acrylic earlier this year, with a follow-up CTP issued in August. Smith noted that Microsoft has dedicated employees taking feedback from message boards directly to its development teams.

CTP builds of Sparkle and Quartz will come later this year, but Microsoft has not announced a specific timeframe. Pricing and packaging specifics of the Expression family is also in flux, although Smith said the products will likely arrive close to the final launch of Windows Vista next year.

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