Multimedia developer Jered Cuenco calls it the "gray box application" phenomenon: when a developer, befuddled by a graphic designer's computer-drawn mockups and unclear instructions, comes back with a prototype full of generic gray buttons, plain white backgrounds, oversize headlines in blinking Times New Roman text and other such crimes against user interfaces.

"It just drives designers up a wall," said Cuenco, who works for interactive design firm, Avenue A-Razorfish.

But those kinds of results reflect the typically clumsy workflow today between designers and developers, according to Cuenco, blaming in part software tools used by the respective camps that don't talk well with one another.

That's the problem that Microsoft, with its upcoming suite of Expression design software, hopes to solve.

"There is not a clean hand-off, and we can fix that with our software," said Tim O'Brien, group manager for Microsoft's platform strategy group.

At its Mix 06 conference in Las Vegas next week, Microsoft hopes to convince the several thousand attendees expected to show up -- most of them loyal to tools such as Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver -- to add Expression to their toolboxes.

The Expression software allows designers to work in conventional drag-and-drop environments while producing underlying code in Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML) that can be directly exchanged with developers creating business applications, custom portals and other software and services for Windows Vista. Expression will run only on Windows.

Tools of the trade

Microsoft is highlighting the usability and design of Vista and Office 2007, which rely on enhanced user interfaces made possible by Expression and Vista's graphical framework, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). That combination could radically improve the usability of business applications, mini-applications such as "gadgets" and "widgets", portals and more, said Bola Rotibi, an analyst at London technology consulting firm Ovum.

"The Expression tools are pretty sophisticated," Rotibi said. "Any CIO would be foolish not to have at least one eye on what's coming and thinking 'How do I make the most of this?'"

Both Expression Graphic Designer, which combines Photoshop- and Illustrator-like features, and Expression Web Designer, which is similar to Dreamweaver, could be released by the end of this year, said Wayne Smith, Expression product manager at Microsoft.

Of the new software, Graphic Designer is the most mature. It was first released in 1996 by Fractal Design Corp. as a cutting-edge vector drawing tool. The software bounced among several owners before Microsoft bought it in 2003.

Five Community Technology Previews of Expression Graphic Designer have already been released since last year.

Jeffrey Chiang, an interactive designer at San Francisco design firm Gotomedia., said that while Expression Graphic Designer's features are "quite interesting", the interface needs a lot of work to keep designers used to the Adobe and Macromedia user interfaces from getting "frustrated".

Expression Interactive Designer, on the other hand, has had only one CTP released since January. It won't be released until 2007, after Windows Vista is out, Smith said.

An eye on Web design

Meanwhile, Microsoft is expected to release its first beta of Web design software during the Mix Conference.

Cuenco said that while Adobe software such as Flash may be great for developing Web-based applications for consumers, it can't compete with WPF when developing graphically-enhanced Windows applications for business users.

"The things you can do in WPF, Flash can't do," Cuenco said. For example, with Expression, developers will be able to build interfaces or "skins" on top of business applications that can be easily swapped out by users or customized to make them easier or more powerful to use, Cuenco said.

Despite Microsoft's hopes, it may be counting too much on the ubiquity of Windows and the popularity of its .Net tools among developers to help make inroads against Adobe, said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at JupiterResearch. "Adobe is the incumbent here, and as we've seen, incumbents are not easily displaced."

One reason is that while developers may see the benefits of adopting Expression, designers may not clamber on board. "Microsoft is operating under the presumption that when the developer and the designer work together, the developer is the lead. I'm not sure I buy that."

An aversion to FrontPage

Microsoft also faces skepticism because its most prominent earlier effort, FrontPage, did not win a strong following with professional designers. In February, the company said FrontPage would be phased out, with its features being incorporated into Expression Web Designer and SharePoint Designer 2007, part of the Office 2007 suite.

"Expression will automatically get a lot of resistance from design houses because there is a lot of emotion tied to the [Adobe] brand," Cuenco said.

Adobe professes to be unworried, with Jim Guerard, vice president of product management for Web and video solutions, touting Adobe's PDF and Flash frameworks. "We expect competition, but no other company has the Adobe advantage," he said.

Ovum's Rotibi said that Adobe is "not standing still" and is improving the interoperability between its products, although Microsoft, with its still-unreleased products, remains "one step ahead."

And GotoMedia's Chiang said Adobe can't afford to rest on its laurels. "If Adobe doesn't do something about how to integrate Macromedia's products and come up with something great, Microsoft might have a chance in the second or third version of Expression," he said.