As you may know, I use Microsoft Expression Web as my primary Web site development tool. I also own Adobe Dreamweaver just in case a client has a particular requirement, but I have long preferred Expression Web and its progenitor, FrontPage, over Dreamweaver.
On Monday Microsoft announced an overhaul of its Expression suite of products, now in its fourth edition. This reorganization gives greater clarity to the role Expression plays in the Microsoft product lineup. From Microsoft's perspective, Expression is for Web and application designers while Visual Studio is for Web and app developers.
This distinction is especially evident in the pricing of the two primary versions of the suite, Expression Studio 4 Ultimate ($600) and Expression Studio 4 Web Professional ($150). Both versions include Web (with SuperPreview) and Design. The Pro version includes Encoder 4 while the Ultimate version includes Encoder 4 Pro (a bit of naming confusion there). Finally, Ultimate tacks on the new Sketchflow application and Blend, making it the obvious choice of Silverlight developers.
The truth is that this release of the Expression Suite relates to other recently released Microsoft technologies, Silverlight 4 and .NET 4.0. That is the timing that appears to have driven this release of the suite, not significant improvements to the core applications Web, Design, and Blend. This release comes a mere 9 months after the release of version 3, a very short cycle that had its own price.
My primary interest is, of course, Expression Web (EW). On a features basis, little is new. The excellent SuperPreview is improved, with better support for Internet Explorer and a new feature that allows other browsers, such as Safari, to be previewed with the assistance of a remote rendering service. The other new feature is the SEO checker, a tool to analyze a site to help the developer deal with potential search engine "optimization" problems. There are almost no new features over EW3, and therein lies the story.
Version 3 was a very important release for EW. It included many new, desirable features and was greeted with initial enthusiasm by the Expression community. Unfortunately, EW3 also included a few show-stopper bugs. These were so bad that Microsoft released a service pack after only a few months. This move garnered praise until it was discovered that the bug fixes had introduced a second round of show stoppers. It was not until yet another service pack arrived that EW3 became stable.
The energy and time required to repair the disastrous release of EW3 must have cut into the budget for EW4. I have absolutely no evidence for this, but clearly the team had to have been stressed if it was trying to meet a v4 deadline while cleaning up the EW3 mess, all in less than 9 months. In that sense, EW4 might simply be considered EW3 SP3, not a completely new version with significant new features.
One could argue that Microsoft's pricing for upgrades reflects all of this. Registered owners of EW3 will get EW4 for free. Had there been significant improvement in v4, I doubt this free upgrade would have been provided. Microsoft has said that the free upgrade was based on the very short upgrade cycle between v3 and v4, which I suppose is plausible.
The bad news is that much needed improvements to Expression Web have not been made. My primary gripe is with the publishing system. I became a FrontPage devotee because of its brilliant one-click publishing system, which uploaded sites and changes with alacrity. As EW moved from the FrontPage Server Extensions' proprietary publishing system to FTP, publishing began to develop problems. EW3's publishing problems were severe and to a great extent continue into EW4. The worst problem is speed. While the new FTP system moves files much more quickly than FP did, it seems to take EW an eternity to figure out the synchronization status of a site and thus which files it actually needs to move. And the bigger the site, the slower it gets.
My other disappointment lies in support for PHP development. I have chosen to build sites with PHP and MySQL, which is understandably anathema to Microsoft. EW favors ASP.NET and MSSQL. Now it is true that PHP support has advanced considerably in EW and it is also true that EW is Microsoft's only tool for PHP (Visual Studio doesn't do PHP). Nonetheless, I had hoped EW would have been further along by now. Microsoft touts EW as its standards-based, generic Web development tool; it can't be that without cracker-jack support for PHP. I could live without direct support for other database engines.
EW4 is a step forward in stability and reliability. It is not a step forward in features and it lags in performance.
Design is Microsoft's most advanced graphics tool. Although that's not saying much, Design is competent and useful. It has a clean UI (by which I mean cleaner than Adobe's) and excellent vector graphic drawing capabilities. It is much easier to use than Adobe Illustrator. It is not sold as a standalone product (I'm not sure I understand why) and thus could be considered a "free" application that happens to come in the same box as Web.
I don't use Design. I wish I could. The problem is that the program has almost no support for bit-mapped graphics, like GIF, JPG, and PNG files. It can use them - it just can't edit them. I keep griping about this because when word of Expression 1 originally leaked out, the word was that a key ingredient of Design would be its ability to handle both vector and bitmap images. That would have made for a very interesting tool and there is no question in my mind that developers would have made a beeline to it.
That leaves the question of why I even mention Design. Well, it turns out that there is a very interesting new feature in ED4, the ability to import a Windows Metafile graphic. That's right, after two decades Microsoft finally has a tool that can edit its own graphics format! Design can't save files in WMF format, but that's okay. The issue here is that I have thousands of WMFs, all sorts of royalty-free clip art that is useful including that supplied with Microsoft's own Office suite, and no easy way to access them. Now, finally, I can get them into an editing surface with which I can modify them, keep them in .design files, and save them as needed for Web work. Expression Design suddenly has a clear value to me for the first time.
The final element in Expression Studio is Expression Encoder. This is not much of an inclusion because Encoder is available to anyone as a free download because Encoder is, in effect, the replacement for Windows Media encoder. Encoder has limited output capabilities, mostly just Windows Media.
Perhaps the most important feature in the basic version of Encoder is its ability to capture from the Windows screen and then edit that video. This feature was first available in v3 of Encoder. Although less sophisticated, flexible and capable than the superb Camtasia, Encoder can handle the basics if you don't need any output other than WMV.
For other output formats you would need Encoder Pro. Those formats include the most important video encodings for the Web, like H.264.
Hope for the Future
The Microsoft team behind Expression Web has dropped a few hints here and there about what would be coming in the future. For the most part, those hints related to features that any modern Web tool needs, so we really don't know much. At the moment all we can expect is that the suite gets back to a product cycle of 12-18 months, with fall of 2011 the likely next release.
I fervently hope that the publishing problems are addressed. Publishing is not yet optimal and continues to be the source of many complaints on the public Expression forums. I am also looking forward to better support for PHP in the editor. Given that EW is the only Microsoft tool that deals with PHP, my hope is that EW5 will treat PHP as a first-class citizen of the Web.
Until then, I'm glad that the horrible problems from EW3 are at last behind us.