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Sparkle! Acrylic! Expression!

Microsoft  released a preview of a new family of design tools intended to play well with its Visual Studio 2005 developer tools.

The community technology preview (CTP) released on Tuesday is a sneak peek at the Expressions family of tools. Expression Interactive Designer and Expression Graphic Designer are available for free download now.

"All these tools are targeting the next-generation user experience enabled by Windows Vista and WinFX," said Forrest Key, product manager for the line.

Expression Interactive Designer, formerly code-named Sparkle, lets designers create the appearance and behavior of application user interfaces. They can put together and style interface elements such as controls and menus, determine the layout and specify the ways data is presented inside the application.

"You can take any property of any object and animate it," Key said, "and the animation can be triggered by any event." The product will support a wide variety of media types, including two-dimensional vectors, bitmaps and 3-D geometry; it also will support video, audio and rich text.

A third tool, Expression Web Designer, has not yet been released as a CTP. It aims to help Web designers create Web applications using standards such as Cascading Style Sheets and XML.

Key said this CTP of Expression Graphic Designer, formerly known as Acrylic, has a richer and more capable XAML exporter.

XAML is Microsoft's declarative markup language for the Windows Vista Presentation Foundation (formerly known as Avalon). XAML is based on XML, using tags to describe what's presented on-screen.

The idea is that a designer could create the look and feel of a Web site or application interface using the Expression tools, and then export that as XML code. The XML can be used by interactive designers and developers working with Visual Studio 2005, freeing them from having to recreate designs by hand coding.

"What we're doing with Expression is to look at designer/developer interactions and workflow, and then thinking about how we can greatly improve the productivity of that team," Key said.

In addition to the public CTP downloads, Microsoft has added content and support information to the Expression marketing Web site.

Microsoft previewed the applications, some of them under different monikers, at its Professional Developers Conference in September 2005.

"These CTPs are early glimpses of the technology we make available to the public to engage in discussion, get feedback and determine the functionality, in order to finish the product and bring it to market," Key said. There's no date for the final release yet.

Designers and developers will also be able to use Expressions for applications on Windows XP, thanks to Microsoft's decision to make WinFX, a part of Microsoft's new programming interface, available for building applications that run on Windows XP.