The plethora of options available to Web designers can be a bit overwhelming. This ranges from various freeware products to coding pages with simple text editors to full-featured design solutions from Adobe and now Microsoft.
The Microsoft Expression product line offers solutions for building powerful user interfaces for both Windows and Web clients. Here's an overview of these new tools.
At this time, there are four products in the Expression product line, which include:
- Expression Web: A professional design tool to create standards-based Web sites. A key feature is that it facilitates the creation of Web sites as standards-based rather than standards-compliant. (I provide more details later in the article.)
- Expression Design: A graphic design tool that may be used to build elements for Web applications.
- Expression Blend: A tool for building full-featured Windows-based applications. It allows you to create powerful user-interfaces that may include graphics and other media types, along with fully customizable controls included with the product.
- Expression Media: A professional asset management tool to visually catalog and organize all your digital assets for effortless retrieval and presentation.
All four of these products are combined into Expression Studio, but Web designers are primarily focused on Expression Web.
Building Web sites
Expression Web's main interface will be familiar to existing Dreamweaver users, as its layout is similar. It provides WYSIWYG and code views and offers tight integration with Microsoft development languages; it does not, however, play so well with non-Microsoft languages. It promises standards compliance and full CSS and XML support.
Expression Web creates CSS-based, XHTML 1.0 Transitional-conforming Web sites by default. The key focus of working towards standards is better support across browsers, thus easing development and deployment headaches. This tool actually allows you to control schema settings to support all combinations of HTML, XHTML, Strict, Transitional, Frameset and CSS 1.0, 2.0, and 2.1, plus browser-specific schemas. The option to validate your site with compatibility and accessibility reporting and against Section 508 and W3C Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is provided.
Expression Web relies on CSS to generate output when building pages and applications. It allows you to directly manipulate positioning, sizing, margins, and padding. It includes a sophisticated CSS rendering engine that facilitates on-the-fly design changes. The Expression Web design interface includes drag-and-drop style management, typing aids, and a central repository that simplifies the management of CSS resources. All in all, the CSS tools are impressive. For example, you can easily browse through styles and actually see what each style looks like before applying it.
You can build and format views of industry-standard XML data using drag-and-drop tools for quick visualization. The XPath Expression Builder allows you to create complex queries, and XSL Transform (XSLT) support gives you the flexibility to present data any way you want. XML data may be utilized via RSS feeds that match site formatting. Also, you can easily utilize an XML data source for page elements.
Under the hood
Expression Blend utilizes version 3.0 of the .NET Framework to build applications, and Expression Web utilizes ASP.NET 2.0 on the server.
The Expression tools are also fully compatible with the Visual Studio development environment. As a result, designers can deliver Visual Studio-compatible projects to developers, who can then use Visual Studio to add advanced functionalities such as security or database connections. This provides a type of workflow as Web designers begin the work with Expression Web and push the results to .NET developers who use Visual Studio to add code and such to the application.
Here's the availability of the Expression line as of this writing:
- Expression Web is shipping.
- Express Blend has a Release Candidate available.
- Expression Design has Beta 2 available.
- Expression Media has a trial version available.
Stay tuned to the Microsoft Expression site for details on forthcoming releases. Microsoft Expression Web is priced at $299 (U.S.), with $99 upgrades available for some FrontPage users.
What happened to FrontPage?
Some developers are wondering whether the new tools are simply the older FrontPage product with a new interface and box. Expression Web can do everything FrontPage can do and much more. A key difference is code organization and CSS code generation.
The Expression Web interface will be familiar to those who use other Microsoft products. Like most Web design tools, it allows you to view the page in either design or code views as well as a split view showing both, so it is easy to get as deep in the code as you want. The comprehensive CSS support is a pleasant surprise, and it allows you to create sites based solely on CSS. Furthermore, the template support makes it easy to utilize and maintain a consistent design throughout a site. If you are an ASP.NET developer, the tight integration with it will be welcome, but other developers are left in the cold. I am impressed with the product overall, and I look forward to working with the other Expression tools to see how they work together.
What do you think about the latest Web design tool from Microsoft? Have you used it? If not, do you plan on using it? Share your thoughts and experiences with the community by posting to the article discussion.
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Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.
Tony Patton has worn many hats over his 15+ years in the IT industry while witnessing many technologies come and go. He currently focuses on .NET and Web Development while trying to grasp the many facets of supporting such technologies in a production environment on a daily basis.