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Microsoft's Acrylic Moves Closer to Vista

Microsoft released the second technology preview of Acrylic on Monday, bringing it closer to a full-fledged design tool for Windows Vista interfaces.

Available as a free download, the community technology preview (CTP) lets users export graphic design elements in the XAML file format. XAML, Microsoft's extension of XML, is a declarative markup language used with the Windows Presentation Foundation (formerly known as Avalon) that's part of Windows Vista.

XAML provides a high-level syntax that can invoke the .NET Framework as well as delivering the user interface of an application. It can be used for two- and three-dimensional graphics, text, animation and video.

The idea is to let designers and developers working on Windows Vista applications use the same code base, so the developer doesn't have to recreate the designer's work, said Forest Key, Microsoft developer product manager.

"The wave of applications that will come in the Windows Vista timeframe will exhibit rich graphics and productivity," Key said. "Having professional tools for designers that can output content in a format that can be used by developers building applications will let designers and developers work together in an integrated workflow."

Today's interface designers typically hand developers a bitmap graphics file, or, sometimes, just a piece of paper showing the interface design, then the developer must determine how to turn it into C# or C++ code, Key said.

"The designer has thought really deeply about the visuals and user experience, then hand it over in a useless format that doesn't convey any richness or parameters," Key said. "So the developer might miss the nuance completely, or, even if he sees the nuance, may not be able to produce it in code."

Microsoft is touting the enriched graphics capabilities of Windows Vista, including support for transparent effects in the user interface.

Besides XAML support, the latest release adds the ability to export both vector and raster elements to Windows Presentation Foundation, document resizing, several presets for creating effects and graphical treatments, and the ability to copy and paste graphics into Microsoft Office or export them to HTML for integration into Web sites.

Microsoft released the first Acrylic CTP in June, and Keys said it had generated more than 200,000 downloads. The new release responds to feedback from those beta users.

Acrylic is based on Creature House Expression, a product Microsoft acquired in 2003. Expression has been available as a free download since May 2004. Microsoft plans to release Acrylic under a different product name at a still-to-be-determined time, Key said.

According to Key, Acrylic is not the same as Expression Studio, the design suite that Microsoft also is building. Eric Rudder, Microsoft's senior vice president for servers and tools, briefly mentioned Expression Studio during the company's Financial Analyst Meeting in July.

"Acrylic is not Expression Studio verbatim," Key said. "There may be some relationship between Expression Studio and Acrylic, but it's not one and the same." He refused to say what that relationship might be, or what Expression Studio might include.

But Key said that Microsoft would bring a version of the software that's now being previewed to the community to market, with a still-to-be-determined name, feature set and price. (The current download will expire in December 2005.)

Key acknowledged that Acrylic was not only complementary but also somewhat competitive with Adobe products.

Adobe will acquire Macromedia, creator of the Flash animation format and tools for Web and mobile designers. The combined companies will offer nearly 40 different software applications, the companies said.

"By having tools with professional-level capability, there will be some overlap with Adobe/Macromedia," Key said. "But the real innovation and focus of the tools will be in areas that are quite unique and not overlapping with Adobe." While Adobe focuses on print, Web, video and interactive graphics, he said, "Acrylic is focused on platform application content and interfaces."