Today something major happened at Microsoft that will likely not be noted in the general tech media but will have a major impact on Microsoft’s influence over the web and web development. Microsoft is abandoning Expression Web – their only true front end web design and development application (IDE) – in favour of a Visual Studio / Blend hybrid. While this is no surprise, it is disheartening to see Microsoft write off front end developers in their misguided quest to make the web obsolete and replace it with Windows 8 apps. While the company is painting this as a move to consolidate and refine their web and app development toolkit, the message is loud and clear to anyone working as front end web developers: If you don’t make .NET and Windows 8 apps we have no interest in you.
Considering web publishers are moving aggressively towards more agile platforms, open standards, and content-centric solutions powered by Open Source languages, (1) this is a colossal step backwards and quite likely one Microsoft will never be able to recover from.
To put it in plain English: As of right now Microsoft no longer has a stake in the front end web development game.
Though Expression Web will live on as a “community supported” free application, no major updates will be released and it will die a sad and lonely death on the computers of fans like myself.
Expression Web and what could have been
If you’ve been following me for a while you may know that I have been using Expression Web to build websites and applications, and to build WordPress themes and plugins since the first beta of the application came out. I’ve also published four books, a video course, and countless tutorials on the use of Expression Web and its interaction with WordPress and other open source solutions.
What made Expression Web the best kept secret of the front end web development world was that the application put web standards front and center and was largely platform- and solution agnostic. Here was a true front end web design and development solution that handled PHP as well as it handled .NET, provided extensive coding support for everything from CSS3 to HTML5 to jQuery, and allowed you to do pretty much whatever you wanted regardless of whether what you wanted to do was based on a Microsoft coding language or not.
Expression Web has too many useful features to count, chief amongst them the seamless integration of advanced CSS tools that made it easy for novices and seasoned pros alike to build, dissect, troubleshoot, and publish standards based, future proof, and forward thinking CSS in a snap. I’ve made many a crowd gape in awe as I redesigned the CSS on the CNN.com website on the fly at conferences, and I’ve found that Expression Web has been by far the best learning tool for design minded and oriented people who wanted to make sense of the complexities of HTML and CSS.
For me this is more than just the sad death of software that should have been at the top of the priority list for Microsoft. It is also the end of an era. As I said before, my involvement with Expression Web started in the very beginning while the application was still in Beta. In fact this blog, Design is Philosophy, was started to document my experiences using Expression Web. Because of my aggressive bug reporting and commenting I was contacted by the Expression Web development team soon thereafter and I became a beta tester for the application. Eventually I was given a Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) award for my efforts and to date I have received that award four years running. My involvement with the Expression Web development team landed me a book deal, speaking engagements, and got me to the MIX conference in Las Vegas on two occasions. It also opened a whole new world of opportunity for me, so much so that I can honestly say that I owe much of my success to Expression Web and it’s chief creator Steven Guttman.
Through the years I have been heavily involved in beta testing of the many versions of Expression Web and there are features in the current application that could have my name on them. I used my influence to push the open source agenda and made every effort to help Microsoft understand they were sitting on a goldmine they refused to explore and the open source community understand what a useful application this really is. Now it turns out all those efforts were for naught.
End of an era
However much I feel this is a personal loss, it is nothing compared to what the crack team of designers and developers that made Expression Web what it was only to have it discarded by the mothership for political reasons must be feeling right now. The decision to scrap Expression Web is clearly one made by management with their heads buried deep in the river bed. The application was a shining light of what Microsoft could be – an open application focussed on real life work regardless of platform or product affinity. Sadly that path has now been closed in favour of laser sharp focus on pushing internal product even though the community is not interested. I would laugh at the lack of insight these corporate pencil pushers have, but that would trivialise what is endemic of a corporate culture of detachment and ideological dogma.
The writing has been on the door, in blood, for a year now and when confronted with the question of what Microsoft was envisioning for the future of web development in early 2012 the answer was loud and clear: For Microsoft, the web is dying and the future lies in Windows 8 apps. When asked what we web developers should be doing the answer was the same: Make Windows 8 apps. Which is about as useful as telling a contractor to start erecting tents instead of houses because houses are no longer relevant. Anyone outside the reach of whatever reality distorting force field they have running at the Redmond campus can see how idiotic this is, but that hasn’t stopped the people in charge for pulling the plug on one of the few applications from the company that had something new to offer.
I could be subtle about this, but seriously, you all know me too well for that. This is idiocy. Pure and simple.
RIP Expression Web. Your master never understood your value.
Maybe the Mayans got it right after all.
(1) In the original version of the article I stated somewhat vaguely that “.NET is seeing a sharp decline”. Thanks to some commenters I realize this statement was unclear and somewhat confusing. The sentence has been edited to reflect the original intended message, that a large majority of sites and content published on the web is being published using open source languages and platforms leaving closed solutions like Microsoft Stack applications languishing in the dust. See here for stats on Content Management Systems as an example. I realize I used the term “.NET” too loosely, thus the correction.