Whenever Microsoft introduces a genuinely new set of products, it's always worth paying close attention. The company doesn't always hit, particularly the first time -- the early versions of Internet Explorer, for example, were just plain terrible -- but over time it learns lessons that you sometimes only learn by being an underdog. What's more, Redmond can usually be relied on to stay in the game.

The company's new Expression Studio suite (US$599) brings together four programs that stake out some new territories for Microsoft and strengthen the company's presence in existing ones. Expression Web is the latest incarnation of FrontPage, an adjunct to Microsoft Office, while Expression Design, Expression Blend and Expression Media are entirely new applications. They're meant to work together as a design suite for the Web and for desktop applications, especially as a way to support Microsoft's Silverlight technology and the .Net platform in general.

Silverlight is intended as a competitor to Adobe's Flash in some respects: It lets you run rich Internet applications in a browser but also includes some more advanced features like JavaScript functionality (you can command a Silverlight app with JavaScript) and AJAX (a Silverlight app can dynamically load content from somewhere else). To that end, Expression Studio is the first iteration of a set of tools to allow people to create those apps.

The tools can be used on their own for other things -- if you just want to pick up Expression Web and use that to work on your existing Web site, you can do so -- but it's clear that Microsoft wants this to be the first step toward making Silverlight as common a presence on the Web as Flash itself. For now, the individual pieces are intriguing, and I'll examine each of them in turn.

First, a note about Expression Studio's availability. Right now, all four applications in the suite are available as fully functional, 60-day trial downloads -- a good way to get your hands on them before they are officially released.

The current iteration of the suite contains Expression Blend 1.0 -- discussed below -- but Blend 2.0 is already in a preview (i.e., beta) form with a 180-day trial period. (My guess is that 2.0 will be released long after both Blend 1.0 and the full Studio product are out in stores, and people who bought Blend in either form will get a free upgrade.)

Also only available in its free trial form is Expression Media Encoder, which converts video into the proprietary VC-1 codec used by Silverlight.

Expression Web ($299 individually; $99 when upgrading from FrontPage)

Microsoft Expression Web is what Microsoft FrontPage should have been all along, and the only shame of it is that it took Microsoft this long to get it right.

Among Web designers, FrontPage rightfully earned the status of a running joke. It generated bloated HTML jammed with proprietary tags; it was a terrible pain to use with FTP; and the mere thought of FrontPage extensions, those proprietary server-side additions that created more directory clutter and security issues than usable features, were enough to send people screaming into the night.

Small wonder Microsoft dropped the name "FrontPage" entirely and decided to pitch Expression Web as a wholly new application (although you can pick up Expression Web for $99 if you have an existing edition of FrontPage). There's another successor of sorts to FrontPage called SharePoint Designer, but it's used to build sites only in SharePoint itself -- Microsoft's enterprise-level collaboration tool -- and isn't intended as a general-purpose Web design app.

Expression Web's interface and layout are still very much like FrontPage's: a tree for the site you're currently editing, an editing pane that can be toggled or split between raw code and WYSIWYG editing, and so on. This immediately separates it from the rest of the Expression suite apps, which look radically different; but by doing this, Microsoft has kept the best parts of FrontPage's classic look and feel to retain existing users, while at the same time retooling the program from the inside out to be strongly standards-compliant.

At the same time, there's enough backward compatibility with FrontPage-specific features that one can continue to work more or less seamlessly with older FrontPage projects. These features include the dreaded FrontPage extensions and Web bots, which render content like page includes when the site is published to a remote host. Most people, though, will probably want to migrate away from anything proprietary if they haven't already done so.

What's immediately apparent as new is the presence of panels that let you edit and apply CSS styles as well as work with tag and CSS properties. CSS and XML are now deeply ingrained into the way you work with pages, not just added as afterthoughts. This stuff is also made that much easier to use courtesy of some intuitive GUI mechanisms.

For example, you can move a given CSS class from a page to a style sheet by simply dragging and dropping. If you want to wrap objects within a DIV or a SPAN tag, just select the objects in question, choose the

object from the HTML toolbox and select Wrap. In older versions of FrontPage, you had the Quick Tag Editor (and it's still present in Expression Web), but it isn't as immediately useful as Expression Web's new methods for accomplishing the same things.

The HTML and XML generated by Expression Web is as clean and free of Microsoft-centric tags as it gets, which is a welcome relief. The functions in FrontPage 2003 to clean spurious tags (such as those generated by Word) are all still here, but if you're starting a project anew you'll be pleased at how things look.

Pages can also be run against standards-compliance checks and automatically reformatted to use XML, and there's an option to automatically point out tags that don't validate against the current document definition (which is really handy if you're importing old quirks-mode pages and reworking them to be in strict adherence). Internet Explorer 7 is broken out as its own validation standard, so you can check sites against it separately -- a useful choice, since IE7 renders things markedly unlike IE6 (and competing browsers, too).

Another major improvement over FrontPage is the way FTP is handled. Programs like Adobe's Dreamweaver have very tight FTP integration; in FrontPage, it always felt like an afterthought. Expression Web lets you set up an FTP site so that pages can either be edited remotely (fast) or synchronized with a local cache of files (better support for quirky things like Web bot includes). Best of all, you can make local copies of pages or folders selectively, so you don't have to download a whole site at once to get working on something.

One thing that's noticeably missing in the editor, and which might throw some people off, is the Preview tab. Instead, the WYSIWYG editing view has been designed to approximate a preview as closely as possible. If you want a truly accurate preview version of the page you're editing, which was previously only available in the Preview tab, you can either press F12 to launch it in a browser -- which is annoying, since you have to switch away from the app itself -- or press Ctrl-/ to turn off all the on-screen visual aids (table borders, element demarcators, etc). It's not a major omission, but for someone used to the old Preview tab (like me), it's a bit annoying.

In conclusion, this is a very worthy replacement for FrontPage as we have come to know it, although it's geared a little more toward professional Web developers than novices. That said, there are a few accommodations for beginning users, like a bevy of good-looking quick-start templates for many common Web site types.

Expression Design (not available individually)

Design is, loosely speaking, Microsoft's version of the Adobe Illustrator vector-graphics drawing application -- or, in Microsoft's words, "a tool for creative professionals and developers who want to build high-impact graphics for rich application user interfaces, the Web, or any other medium."

As you'd expect from such a description, it sports a range of vector drawing tools that stack up decently well against Adobe Illustrator -- but Illustrator has been playing this game for a couple of decades now and has enough adherents (and enough polish) that people are not simply going to switch on a whim. I suspect, though, that the program is not so much meant to unseat Adobe's hold on the vector-drawing application market as allow people without Illustrator or anything like it to purchase Expression Studio and have something of Illustrator's ilk immediately available.

Design offers a palette of fairly typical vector drawing tools, such as primitives, polygons and splines, all of which behave about as you'd expect and have malleable attributes like stroke style (plain line, dotted line, inkbrush stroke, etc.) and opacity. When you insert text, you can manipulate it as a text object until you say otherwise -- you can change fonts or spacing freely, and you're not stuck with treating it as a bunch of inert vector shapes.

Objects can also be collated into Photoshop-like layer groups, each with their own distinct compositing style. Bit maps can be handled as bit maps or traced to vector images, although I found that auto-tracing really only works well for simple black-and-white line art. In short, a lot of what the program includes is fairly standard issue for this type of work and pretty well put together.

One thing about Design (and Blend) that separates it from most other Microsoft programs I've worked with is the interface -- it doesn't look anything like Expression Web, for instance. Instead of the color schemes we're all used to (think of Office and Visual Studio), Design is black-on-gray, with an option for a light-gray-on-gray look. This change is probably intentional: Design and Blend are new products to Microsoft's stable, not revamps of existing ones, and their new look is an indicator of that.

Another thing I noticed right away is how certain controls -- like the spacing for fonts -- are implemented using a sort of hybrid interface widget I've never seen before. Click on the control itself and you can type in a value; click to one side of the control and a drop-down menu with various options appears; click and drag on the control and it turns into a kind of slider, with changes registering in real time. It's an interesting system, but it takes some getting used to.

Now on to what's explicitly missing. For one, CMYK support is completely absent from Design: It's not even possible to export a document in that color space, never mind work on it that way. This makes Design effectively useless for color-separated print work (although it would work fine with office color printers). My guess is that Microsoft is simply not trying to challenge Adobe in that territory with this particular program -- at least, not right away.

Another hefty strike against Design is its lack of native support for either Adobe Illustrator documents or for the SVG vector-image open standard. Snubbing SVG appears to have been a conscious choice on Microsoft's part and reflects the Expression suite's close tie-in with .Net technology. (See this Microsoft Developer Network post for details.) I suspect if better support for these formats comes along it'll be in the form of an aftermarket plug-in, as with Office 2007's PDF support.

Expression Design also isn't available as a stand-alone product, only as part of the Studio suite. But since the entire Studio is $599, the same price as Illustrator CS3 alone, it could be a tempting choice for people who aren't already committed to Adobe's product.

Expression Media ($299; $99 when upgrading from iView MediaPro)

Expression Media (derived from the iView Media product acquired by Microsoft in July 2006 and available for the Mac as well) is the Expression suite's organizational tool for still images, video and audio. In some ways the program is like a bigger, more professional cousin to Windows Vista's Photo Gallery application, not only because it supports more than just pictures but also because it works with high-end media types -- e.g., RAW-format camera files from many major manufacturers such as Olympus or Nikon.

Adobe's competing product in this arena is probably Lightroom or Bridge, both of which contain organizational tools and work with RAW image files as well and have a deeply entrenched user base that's not likely to simply switch on a whim. On the other hand, Lightroom and Bridge don't work with anything except still images.

A more direct competitor would be Extensis Portfolio (which is about to go into Revision 8.5 and retails for $199), which supports RAW formats and video and offers a great many other professional-level features (such as a server component for the asset catalog). Right now Media isn't much of a challenger, but it is a cautious first step and a decent starter choice for people who have no application like this yet.

The first thing you'll want to do with Expression Media is fill it up with media. This is easy enough: Select File --> Import Items, point it at a directory, and let it slurp everything up. The files aren't moved from their original location; instead, a catalog is compiled from their path names and metadata, and the catalog can be saved anywhere.

Once Media figures out what's to be imported, it processes the files asynchronously -- you can continue doing other work with the program while it buzzes through everything and categorizes it. Any folder added to a catalog can be monitored for future changes (additions or deletions), although the flexibility of this feature is a little limited -- you can set it to run only once a minute, once every five minutes, or on demand.

The next big thing you'll probably do with imported media is categorize it and add metadata -- a task that ought to be familiar to anyone who's already played with Photo Gallery. If you add metadata to a file that is supported by industry-standard extensions for that file type -- such as EXIF -- it's written back to the file in addition to being stored in the catalog. File types that cannot support some types of metadata directly (such as PNGs) will just have their metadata written into the catalog.

Expression Media's interface for adding metadata is far more detailed than Photo Gallery's, but I miss a few things from Photo Gallery that would be handy here. For instance, when you add keywords to existing pictures by typing, Media doesn't use smart completion to prompt the user from the existing store of keywords; it only prompts you from whatever has been typed in during that session. (On the plus side, you can assign keywords by dragging and dropping pictures onto a given keyword.)

Right-clicking on an item in the catalog lets you launch the file in its native application (such as Photoshop for a .PSD document), show the file in its original folder, move it to another folder while preserving its catalog entry, or perform a number of basic manipulations (rotate, change labels or rating, etc.).

If the original file can't be found, you can either search for it in another location or just remove it from the catalog entirely. If the drive where a catalog's original media resides is not available (e.g., a DVD-ROM or network link), you'll just get "Original media file not available" warnings for everything in the catalog, but you can still browse normally.

Drag-and-drop operations from within Media to other programs work like a drag-and-drop from Explorer itself: You can insert an image into a Web page in Expression Web that way, or copy an image to a new folder.

Some of Expression Media's other features are more conventional and familiar -- making contact sheets, for instance, or building thumbnail galleries from lists of images, or converting images en masse. I liked a lot of little touches, too, like the fact that multilayer Photoshop images can be browsed as thumbnails but can also be browsed layer by layer when you view them directly in Media.

One feature that has a lot of promise but is actually kind of disappointing is the PDF maker -- this allows you to drag and drop pictures into a page of arbitrary size and export it as a PDF file, but you can only create single-page PDFs from it.

The more advanced features of the program go a long way toward making it genuinely useful -- for instance, all the program's functions are exposed through APIs, which you can see in action through a number of included sample scripts written in Visual Basic (e.g., Copy Description from EXIF Fields).

Expression Blend ($499 individually)

Blend is a little hard to describe, but I'll do my best: It's a design tool for creating XAML application interfaces, mainly for programs that run on .Net 3.0 and the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). It's been superficially compared to Microsoft's take on Adobe Flash, but I'm not sure that's a precise comparison.

Microsoft's stated goal with Blend is to allow users to create application front ends that are slick and powerful in a way that Microsoft's programming tools really haven't allowed until now, and in that respect Blend is probably the most genuinely adventurous of the Expression products.

If you're not a programmer, or not intending to write programs that use Microsoft's Silverlight/.Net/
XAML/WPF axis of technologies, Blend is not likely to be of much use to you. If you are interested in building such things, though, it's certainly worth a look.

When you fire up Blend, you're greeted with a workspace that does seem to owe a couple of debts to Flash: Among the panels that are available are event timelines, for creating behaviors that can be hitched to actions such as clicking an object. You can easily switch between Blend's graphical design view and editing the underlying XAML code, if you want to dig into the guts of the project you're working on and make changes by hand.

Integrating existing .Net code into a Blend project isn't terribly tough, and Blend supports either C# or Visual Basic on a per-project basis. Blend also comes with a slew of vector design tools that hearken directly back to Design (and to other vector drawing programs before it), and it loads not only XAML objects but, interestingly enough, Wavefront 3-D objects and textures as well.

The projects you create in Blend can run as stand-alones or can be further expanded on in a programming environment such as Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 -- especially useful if you're writing a lot of back-end code that needs to be debugged in detail, separately. Programmers who are already familiar with the .Net "code-behind" philosophy that separates the program logic from its visualization should be able to pick up Blend pretty quickly.

If you're curious about what's possible with Blend more or less out of the box, check out the sample projects bundled with the program: a primitive animation studio, a 3-D object demo, a "virtual photobook" (complete with turnable pages), a video shelf (like the photobook, but with video), and a playable grand piano. Obviously they're highly simplified examples, but can be taken apart as an example of how to build applications in Blend.

Again, it's hard to avoid comparisons with Flash: Blend-created applications can run in Web browsers as part of a site (for instance, as an interface for a site that is too complex for mere AJAX) or as stand-alone desktop applications. Still, I don't expect the full potential of Blend apps and the Silverlight platform to really become clear until people actually start building things with it. For my part, most of my programming experience with .Net is with applications for the Web, but Blend is the kind of thing that could get me back into creating desktop apps.

The bottom line

It's hard not to see Expression Studio as less a true "suite" than a collection of products that have been co-branded after the fact -- partly because Microsoft's other suite, Office, is so tightly knit in comparison. It's tough to see how the products in Expression Studio fit into a single integrated workflow or how they can all be used together, aside from creating XAML applications for Web sites. Design's vector-drawing tools seem to be mainly for the sake of creating graphics for use in Blend, for example, which could create applications embedded in a site using Web.

But there are still many pieces missing, such as an image-editing program like Photoshop. Did Microsoft not include one simply because it felt that many people out there already had something that did the job?

This sort of patchiness tells me Microsoft simply wanted to get something out there to start making it possible to build Silverlight/.Net/XAML/WPF applications. This is, again, essentially the same tactic the company used for Internet Explorer: Get something, anything, out into the marketplace, and build it up over time.

The individual pieces that do exist aren't bad. The program I was most impressed by was Expression Web, if only because it represents such a positive step forward from FrontPage. I plan to shell out for a full copy as soon as I can; it's that good, and I know I can get that much use from it.

Expression Blend is about as impressive in its own way, and I suspect it will be something that desktop programmers (as opposed to Web designers) will glom onto first and try to do creative things with.

Media will probably find a niche, and while I suspect it's the kind of program that might be too easily eclipsed by something free or open-source, the support for raw camera files ought to lure in professionals who need that sort of thing, provided they don't already have an application to do it.

Ditto Design, which, as capably assembled as it is, doesn't really stand much chance of wresting attention away from Adobe Illustrator right now. In fact, Adobe doesn't have much to worry about, period, from Expression Studio at this juncture.

(Also note that only Expression Media is available for Mac OS X. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company has no plans to deliver Mac versions of the other tools in the suite -- which makes sense, given its focus on the Windows development platform.)

That said, however, one feature of the entire bundle that could prove attractive to a lot of Windows users is its price: Getting all these tools for $599 is pretty hard to beat, and if you need at least two of them, it's a fair bargain. If history is any guide, though, Microsoft will have a finger in the wind for how the suite can be made more of a suite, and make the next version of Expression Studio a truly remarkable piece of work.