Tag Archives: expression

Microsoft scraps Expression Web and Design, blends Blend with Visual Studio

Microsoft is giving up its long effort to compete with Adobe in the design tools space. The Expression range of products is being discontinued, in favour of enhanced design capabilities in its developer-focused Visual Studio. Blend for Visual Studio continues, as a design tool for Windows Store apps and Windows Phone apps. A future edition of Blend for Visual Studio, currently in preview, will add WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation), Silverlight, and SketchFlow support. The release version of this upgraded edition is promised for Visual Studio 2012 Update 2.

The new product plans are announced here:

Microsoft is consolidating our lead design and development offerings — Expression and Visual Studio — to offer all of our customers a unified solution that brings together the best of Web and modern development patterns.

Expression Web, the web design tool which evolved out of FrontPage, and Expression Design, a vector drawing tool, will be discontinued completely. Microsoft’s web design tool will now be Visual Studio.

One consequence of this decision is that Expression Web 4 and Expression Design 4 are now free downloads, though unsupported.

Expression Encoder, for converting media for streaming, is also being discontinued, though Expression Encoder Pro will remain on sale throughout 2013. Microsoft says it is still investing in format conversion as part of Windows Azure Media Services.

Is this a good decision? In one sense it is a shame, since Expression Web is a decent product. At least one longstanding user of the product is disappointed:

For Microsoft, the web is dying and the future lies in Windows 8 apps. When asked what we web developers should be doing the answer was the same: Make Windows 8 apps. Which is about as useful as telling a contractor to start erecting tents instead of houses because houses are no longer relevant. Anyone outside the reach of whatever reality distorting force field they have running at the Redmond campus can see how idiotic this is, but that hasn’t stopped the people in charge for pulling the plug on one of the few applications from the company that had something new to offer.

That said, Expression Web has been available for a number of years and made little impression on the market, so how much value is there in continuing with a tool that few use, irrespective of its merits?

The decision makes sense in that Microsoft is shutting down an unsuccessful product line in order to focus on a successful one, Visual Studio.

Further, the end of Expression illustrates the difficulty Microsoft has had in attracting designers to its platform, despite high hopes in the early days of WPF and Mix conferences in Las Vegas.

Microsoft Expression Blend is too hard to learn

Expression Blend is the design tool for Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Silverlight, and thus a key tool for building applications for the current generation of Microsoft’s platform. How good is it? There is a shortage of in-depth reviews, if my quick Google search is anything to go by, though there are plenty of quick write-ups saying that it is not as good as Adobe Flash. Blend got a bit of attention following the 2009 Mix conference thanks to SketchFlow, the prototyping feature built into Blend 3, and which has been well received.

One reason for Blend’s relatively low profile is that it is aimed at designers, whereas Microsoft’s community is more developer-focused. WPF developers can avoid Blend to a large extent, by using the designer built into Visual Studio, which is fine for laying out typical business applications. Now with Visual Studio 2010 the same is true for Silverlight. Another option is to write your own XAML code, which works for laying out controls though it is inconceivable for drawings. XAML is verbose

It is just as well you can avoid it, because although Blend is very capable, it is not easy to learn. I’m guessing there are quite a few developers who have opened it up, clicked around a bit, and retreated gratefully back to Visual Studio. This was a problem for Adobe Flash Professional as well, and one of the reasons for the creation of Flex and Flex Builder, a code-centric IDE for the Flash runtime.

You can argue that a design tool does not need to be easy for developers to use; it needs to be good enough for designers to create great designs. That’s true; but the developer/design divide is not a absolute one, and ideally Blend should be something a developer can dip into easily, to create or enhance a simple layout, without too much stress.

Maybe some developers can; but I have not found Blend particularly intuitive. The user interface is busy, and finding what you want or getting focus on the right object can be a challenge.

As evidence of this, take a look at Adam Kinney’s Through the Eyes of Expression Blend tutorial, which is among the best I have found. Try lesson 9, Styling and working with design-time data. Then ask yourself how easy it would be to discover the way to do this without the step-by-step instructions. Would you have known to right-click the StackPanel and choose Change Layout Type > Grid? What about step 8, right-clicking the ListBox, and selecting Edit Additional Templates > Edit Layout of Items (Items Panel) > Create Empty?


And notice how in step 9 you have to click the “small grey square next to the Source property”, that’s the one called Advanced Options:


Overall it is a nice tutorial, but you might need an evening or two with a couple of fat books, one on XAML and one on Blend itself (if you can find a good one), in order to understand the features you have have been using.

It is probably worth it, if you intend to work with Silverlight or WPF. Blend has one great advantage over Flash Professional: it authors XAML, and you can open it up in Visual Studio and continue working on it there. Microsoft has no need for something like Adobe Catalyst to bridge the XML/Designer divide.

Still, Microsoft had a clean slate with Blend, which is only a few years old, and it is a shame it could not come up with something a bit more user-friendly.

The other implication is that the new visual designer in Visual Studio 2010 makes Silverlight applications a great deal easier to create. You can Blend if you want to; but the Visual Studio effort is far more approachable.

How do you find Blend? I’d be interested in other perspectives.