Eyeing the rich application design space, Microsoft on Monday is detailing milestones in its Expression design tools platform, including the introduction of Expression Media to manage video files, images, and fonts. The company will announce Expression Studio, a suite of four products. The full suite, however, will not ship until the second quarter of 2007.

Expression puts Microsoft more squarely into the same ballpark with Adobe and its rich media tools such as Flash and Flex. Microsoft, like Adobe, also is factoring in the application developers in its pursuit of the Web-design space, according to analyst Bola Rotibi, of Ovum.

"It's allowing the designers to work in their own environments and developers to work in their own environments but to have a shared context," Rotibi said.

With the Expression products, designers build the look of an application. Microsoft's Visual Studio development platform, on the other hand, is for developing the code part of an application, according to Microsoft.

Expression Studio, which will be priced at $599 for the full suite, features Expression Media, providing digital asset management and team workflow. Based on the iView MediaPro product acquired by Microsoft, it also features Expression Media Encoder for encoding and deploying video and audio.

A first CTP of Expression Media is due early next year. The product will be generally available for $299 in the second quarter of next year, for users who wish to purchase it separate from the full suite.

Expression Media helps designers handle what may be thousands of design elements, said Forest Key, director of Web/Client UX Platform Marketing in the Microsoft Developer Division.

"With Expression Media, they can create a visual catalog," that includes metadata, Key said.

Other components of the suite include:

-- Expression Web, for building Web sites. Formerly known as Expression Web Designer, it is shipping now for an estimated retail price of $299. FrontPage users can upgrade for $99. A free 60-day trial period is being offered, with downloads available.

-- Expression Blend, formerly known as Interactive Designer or Sparkle, for delivering interactive experiences on Windows. Blend Beta 1 is available now for download. The general release is scheduled for second-quarter 2007; it is priced at $499.

-- Expression Design, formerly Graphic Designer or Acrylic, for designing visual elements for Web and Windows experiences. A December Community Technology Preview (CTP) is available. The product ships only as part of the full Expression Studio suite next year.

Expression Design was based on the Creature House Expression technology acquired by Microsoft in 2003. The latest versions of Blend and Design feature a new interface for designers. The interface enables, for example, designers to see how a layout looks on different monitors.

In addition to Expression Studio, Microsoft on Monday is offering the first CTP of Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere (WPE/E). This technology serves as a cross-platform browser plug-in for rich media, animation and video content based on Windows Media technology. Users can author content for WPE/E with the Expression Media and Design products.

WPE/E allows designers and developers to build an experience in the browser that is richer than could be done with just the browser itself, Key said. Featured is the ability to render the XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language) file format for rich media capabilities.

Microsoft also is launching an online community for designers, featuring forums, video demos, and team blogs.

Microsoft Expression, www.microsoft.com/expression