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Microsoft Abandons Expression Web and Front End Web Development

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.

It’s personal

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.

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This is Expression Web 3

Expression Web3

Expression Web 3 is now available for trial download directly from Microsoft. Click here to join in on the fun!

It’s no secret that I’ve been playing around with various pre-beta and beta versions of version three of Microsoft Expression Web for the last few months, all in preparation for the release of my new book Sams Teach Yourself Microsoft Expression Web 3 in 24 Hours which is available for pre-order from Amazon.com right now (even though it’s not finished yet!) So for all this time I’ve had to keep my mouth shut about my new toy and what it can do. Well, no more. I just got the all clear from the development team to talk about the application publicly and share some screenshots of what you can expect when it goes public in the next couple of months.

So, without further ado, here is a quick rundown of the new features, the new appearance and my innitial thoughts on the new member of the Expression Web family.

New Flat-tastic User Interface

The first thing you’ll notice (apart from the new logo in the splash page of course) when opening Expression Web 3 is the new UI skin. The application looks very different from its two prior iterations in that the team has moved away from the classic fake 3D/embossed look to a 2D/3D inspired look with flat surfaces and drop-shadows. The interface is also a lot darker than the prior ones with a dark gray being the predominant colour. The new look makes me think of new media applications like TweetDeck and DestroyTwitter and there is little doubt in my mind that much of the inspiration was taken from what I want to refer to as the post-web2.0 look.

As you can see in the graphic at the top of this article the new look is very clean and sharp and makes icons, toolbars and panels pop out. This dark flat-tastic look has already been used in Expression Design and Expression Blend and I think it is a welcome change that not only links Expression Web to it’s application siblings. It also visually separates the new application from those of the past and signals a new beginning of sorts. Not to mention that to me at least it is much easier on the eye (I tend to do a lot of design work in the dark).

AutoHide Panels

AutoHide PanelsOne of the things that really irks me with design applications in general is all these toolbars and task panes that take up valuable screen space. To curb my frustrations I prefer to work on a dual-monitor setup where I can stash all the tools and task panes on one monitor and leave the application on the other. But this doesn’t work when I’m on my laptop (which is where I’m at most of the time these days). And in Expression Web 1 and 2 even with a widescreen monitor the task panes ate up a lot of real estate. As a result I kept turning the task panes on and off all the time – a process that was a real time waster. In response to complaints and suggestions to do something about the task panes, the dev team introduced a simple AutoHide feature that lets you collapse the panels (they’re not called “task panes” anymore) to the sides from where you can open them by hovering over their names. In practical terms that means you can leave all your favourite panels on the workspace without having them take up tons of room in the process.

The AutoHide feature is easily toggled on and off with a pin logo (seen in the upper right-hand corner of the grab to the right). When the pin is lying sideways as in the grab, the panel is pinned to the wall (AutoHide on). When it’s in the upright position, the panel is a permanent part of the workspace. It’s a simple feature but it makes a world of difference, especially because you can pin individual and rarely used panels to the sides for easy access if you were to need them.

New and improved publishing options

It’s no secret that the publishing options, and especially the FTP publishing option, in Expression Web 1 and 2 were less than stellar. It was so bad in fact that I urged the readers of my book to not use them. Well, without breaking any deals with my publisher I can tell you that my recommendation in the new book is quite different. Not only has the troll that was messing with the FTP been slaughtered but two all new publishing methods have been added to the list providing more secure transfers and options. The list of publishing options now features SFTP (Secure Shell File Transfer Protocol), FTPS/SSL (File Transfer Protocol over Secure Socket Layer) as well as the original FTP, FrontPage Server Extensions, WebDAV and File System.
publishingBut that’s not all. Expression Web 3’s publishing option has been rebuilt from scratch and features a whole new range of functions including the ability to define multiple publishing locations for one site so you can push your files to a backup storage as well as publish them online, or publish them to multiple servers, or set up a testing server and a main server within the same project. This again is a seeminly minor but actual major improvement that makes life a lot easier for people like myself who do a lot of server testing and cross-publishing.

In-application Browser Previews with Snapshot

Expression Web 3 Snapshot panelIn addition to alterations and improvements to the old versions of the application, Expression Web 3 introduces some new features that are going to make your life as a designer/developer a hell of a lot easier. They are connected at the hip but I’d rather deal with them independently. The first one is the Snapshot panel. Like the name suggests, Snapshot takes a real-time browser shot of your current page and displays it in a panel inside your workspace. This means you now have a quick and easy way to see what your recent changes will look like in different browsers, including Internet Explorer 6 and 7 and Firefox, without having to actually run the page in a real browser.

Snapshot’s output is just that – a snapshot – and does not provide functional links and the like. But it does generate JavaScript, CSS, HTML, PHP and whatever else you want to throw at it and gives you a true representation of what your page looks like in the different browsers.Like the other panels you can undock the Snapshot panel and place it somewhere else, for instance on your second monitor.

SuperPreview – Browser Testing Made SuperSimple

Expression Web SuperPreviewI’ve written about SuperPreview before both here on DesignIsPhilosophy.com and in the official Microsoft Expression Newsletter but it can’t be repeated enough: Expression Web SuperPreview could one of the most important innovations in web development of the last several years. SuperPreview is the powerful big brother of Snapshot – a stand-alone application that lets you perform cross-browser testing that lets you compare true output from multiple different browsers with onion skinning and side-by-side preview. To identify incompatibilities, problems and even tiny shifts the application also features simultaneous box highlighting of individual elements and even provides full FireBug-like DOM trees to give you as much info as possible about what’s going on when things go wrong.

I’m not going to go into too much detail here – the application will be better served with a tutorial video that shows how it actually works in real-time – but I will say one thing: Even if I was still a DreamWeaver user, I would buy Expression Web 3 just to get the full version of SuperPreview. And that says a lot cuz’ I’m a cheap guy. With alligator arms.

For more info on Expression Web 3 microsoft just published Expression Web 3: An Overview on the official Microsoft Expression website.

For another take on the new version check out fellow Microsoft MVP Cheryl D. Wise’s blog.