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PDC: Microsoft demos "Expression" web development suite

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Los Angeles (CA) - In the week leading up to Microsoft’s Professional Developers’ Conference here, the code-word "Sparkle" had been leaked to reporters, with the signal that a suite of applications was coming along that would be a "Flash killer." This morning, the company formally unveiled its "Expression" Web development suite, which more accurately appeared to be targeted at Macromedia’s Studio suite, which is spearheaded by Dreamweaver and Fireworks.

The suite - whose final release date was not announced - is comprised of a Web graphics development tool called "Acrylic" (to compete with Fireworks) an interactive Web page development tool called "Sparkle" incorporating XHTML and CSS without the use of code (to compete with Dreamweaver), and a back-end development tool called "Quartz" that makes extensive use of Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML), a Microsoft-driven, semi-open standard for stylesheets applied to XML classes and data items. XAML makes extensive use of XSLT, an open stylesheets standard whose ostensible purpose is to translate and reformat XML data into different XML formats, using an XML template. Before you start wondering, "Why would anybody do that ?" consider a system that instructs an application like Sparkle how to render data from an XML file. The instructions should be written in a standards-compliant format, so XML is charged with that purpose. And the output itself should give either a Web browser a way to make sense of the data (XHTML) or another database manager (XML again).

A demonstration of Sparkle being used to develop a 3D catalog for a fictitious e-commerce site

What differentiates Microsoft’s suite from Macromedia’s is the former’s focus on XML as a medium of translating live data to a browser-rendered form, although Dreamweaver does include a capable XML editor. However, many of the features demonstrated today have never been seen in a Microsoft-developed context before -for example, the capability to apply CSS styles to graphical elements in Sparkle by dragging and dropping CSS blocks onto those elements. Web developers will probably more readily note that Macromedia software already includes similar or identical functions, although perhaps not as slick or cleanly presented.

Eric Rudder, Microsoft senior vice president for Server Tools and Services, demonstrated "Sparkle"

One objective of the Expression suite is to enable a Web developer to develop a live catalog or e-commerce application by dragging fields from an XML database into an on-device, and arrange those devices on a platform Microsoft now replies to as the "design surface." The arrangement and customization of these elements leads to the generation of an XSLT translation in the background, the product of which is an XAML stylesheet that explains how such information can be rendered in the browser, or by any other system. The rendering takes place through another translation into XHTML, with CSS style sheets, also produced in the background. (Extensive exposure to abbreviations and acronyms could cause headaches and nausea.)

Also unveiled today is the replacement for Visual Basic for Applications, the embedded functionality extension system used in Office 2000 and Office XP. Called Visual Studio Tools for Applications (VSTA, though probably not pronounced out loud to avoid even further confusion), the system will ship with Office 12, which Microsoft now says will ship simultaneously with Windows Vista. VSTA is actually the long-anticipated coupling of Office with the .NET Framework, letting customized function authors code in .NET using their choice of languages - the classic Visual Basic, C#, or Visual C++ - within a Visual Studio environment. .NET is Windows’ runtime library of choice, developed originally to combat Java. Office XP’s functionality is provided by an exclusive VBA runtime library, which for years has been criticized as redundant given .NET’s stated goal of ubiquitousness throughout Windows.

The sample application for VSTA involved the generation of a custom function for an unreleased version of AutoCAD, using a code snippet - a mostly written code template that’s dropped in place, then its parameters are filled in. The snippet produced visible statistics on any 3D component that the user clicked on. The demonstration was apparently significant to attendees who had not seen it before, however AutoCAD was an early adopter of VBA, and the code snippet in question was something familiar to this reporter, perhaps for several years. What was especially significant about this demo to me was that it continued to address AutoCAD functionality using a COM type library. This fact can perhaps be interpreted as an implicit continuation of Microsoft’s confidence in the Component Object Model for some time to come, at least with regard to making functionality available to programming environments using an extensible vocabulary, or type library.

Stay in touch with Tom’s Hardware Guide for more news from Microsoft PDC 2005 as it happens.

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