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20 April

Microsoft Expression Web - An Interesting Choice

Microsoft FrontPage has been Microsoft's contribution to the web publishing software market for several years. Particularly popular with amateur designers wishing to make small, personal websites, FrontPage combined a highly visual approach with powerful tools which permitted users to employ all sorts of additional website functionality without too much technical knowledge, all at a very reasonable price.

However, FrontPage was often criticised by web users and professional designers, not least for its lack of compliance with accessibility and usability standards. The code that FrontPage created when pages were built using the visual editor were often grounded in messy code, and the need for hosting which supported FrontPage Server Extensions in order to use additional functionality was also a frustration for many designers. Because of these difficulties, most professional web designers have in the past eschewed the Microsoft product, and gone with the industry leader, Adobe Dreamweaver.

Microsoft has at last decided that it is time to move into standards compliant web publishing software, and seems, with its new Expression Web publishing software, to be attempting to rival Dreamweaver for the industry top spot. Expression Web's unashamedly Dreamweaver-like look and feel betrays Microsoft's desire to compete with the industry leader.

Microsoft has a struggle on its hands if it wants to come out on top. But Expression Web seems ready to accept the challenge. Unlike Dreamweaver, it has been built from the ground up to cater to modern technologies – and it shows. CSS is automatically written and updated when changes are made in the visual editor, and the software actively encourages designers to build CSS and XHTML standards-compliant sites. There is full support for ASP.NET 2.0, and the software is tightly integrated with Visual Studio and other development tools. Expression Web renders previews very faithfully to the way they will be displayed in Internet Explorer 7.

There are still problems, most notably that Expression Web will only run on a Windows operating system. The Mac-using designers will be left behind, and there are a lot of them. However, unusually for Microsoft products, a project can be edited using Dreamweaver and Expression Web interchangeably; the latter has full support for many of Dreamweaver's file types and formatting attributes.

Another problem is that only ASP.NET server tools are available; PHP and JSP are not supported in Expression Web, and whilst the Dreamweaver support for these standards has received some criticism, it does at least exist. Many FrontPage users will be disappointed with the loss of the functionality that FrontPage Server Extensions offered, and there is a notable absence of the support for the amateur designer which made FrontPage so attractive. Also, technical support for the software is, as yet, limited for the software, and this is in contrast to the incredible wealth of information and help available to Dreamweaver users. Expression Web is considerably more expensive than was the last version of FrontPage.

Also, one of Dreamweaver's most attractive features is its slick integration with Photoshop and Illustrator, leaders in their own fields of raster and vector design and editing. Microsoft Expression Web is designed to integrate with the other Expression Studio products, but none of these is beyond the Candidate Release stage yet, and it is hard to believe that they will be able to rival the brilliance of Adobe's image editing software. Adobe's CS3 Studio includes all sorts of other useful pieces of software for which Expression Studio is unlikely to produce alternatives. For many designers, Dreamweaver coupled with the rest of CS3 Studio will remain preferable. For others, however, the pull of integration with Visual Studio will make Expression Web the more attractive option.

Despite the problems, it cannot be denied that Expression Web is an impressive, albeit long-overdue, improvement on Microsoft's previous web publishing offerings. The fact that it has been built solidly from the basics upwards, rather than having had new features tacked on in the way that Dreamweaver has been developed, makes it a very interesting choice for professional designers. It remains to be seen whether it is impressive enough to challenge other market leaders. To win out, Expression Web must prove itself to be hugely better than Dreamweaver, since FrontPage irritations have left a legacy of mistrust in the minds of designers which may well prejudice them against the new Microsoft product.

Posted by Admin