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Adieu FrontPage, Hello Expression

FrontPage has been a part of Microsoft Office for several versions, but beginning with Office 2007, if you want to do some heavy-duty Web page editing, you will need a whole new, stand-alone product that Microsoft has just begun beta testing.

Microsoft today released the first Community Technology Preview (CTP) of Microsoft Expression Web Designer, the successor to FrontPage as Microsoft's Web page editor.

FrontPage joined the Microsoft family in 1996 when the company acquired Vermeer Technologies, which developed the HTML editor. Several versions of Office later, FrontPage hasn't been upgraded anywhere near as aggressively as the other Office applications and is simply too old and out of date to be merely revised, said Microsoft. Instead, Microsoft developed a whole new Web editor.

Some pieces of FP technology have been retained, but by and large, Expressions Web Designer is a new product designed to be fully compliant with all of the new Web standards, said Microsoft.

"We realized that people do things in a way that may have been appropriate four or five years ago but are not appropriate by today's standards," said Wayne Smith, product manager for Expression Web Designer. "We wanted to take a step back and come up with a new way of doing things, with a radical, clean approach to Web site building."

This fresh approach means support for new technologies, both from Microsoft and from outside the company. It will offer much improved support for cascading style sheets (CSS), allowing developers to work visually with any version of CSS they want, said Smith.

Expression Web Designer will also support ASP.NET 2.0 controls, which can be dragged and dropped onto a Web page and configured to the style people want. Expression has much better XML and XHTML support, which will help in building things like RSS feeds or data from other sources using XML and XSLT for the transforms.

By supporting Web design standards, Web pages developed in Expression will look the same whether viewed in Internet Explorer or another browser, such as Firefox, Smith said.

Expression will come with connectivity tools for building connections to back-end databases. ASP.NET will help build connections between Web pages and Microsoft databases, and any database with support for OLE DB. Expression also comes with reporting tools, to generate reports on site errors, accessibility issues and traffic.

Replacing Expression in the Office suite is Sharepoint Designer, a program for document management and intranet functionality, but not Web design, said Smith.

Keeping Expression out of Office was the smart thing to do, Greg DeMichillie, lead analyst for developer tools at Directions on Microsoft, in Kirkland, Wash, told internetnews.com. "This needs to be something that comes out of the developer division and needs to be integrated with the developer products," he said.

FrontPage had outlived its usefulness, particularly as an Office component, he said. "It started out as a tool for people who didn't know much about Web design or HTML, and that audience kinda vanished. Today you have professional Web designers and there is no way they'd use FrontPage."

DeMichillie said he'd only seen demos and had not had hands on experience yet, but liked what he did see. "It looks like one of the nicest Web tools for being aware of style sheets. A lot of people want to design Web pages using style sheets, and that's where FrontPage was really, really awful."

The other part he found encouraging was the support for all browsers, not just Internet Explorer, something FrontPage was useless at doing. "It appears to have nice support for allowing you see how it will look in all browsers."

Smith said he is "pretty confident" Microsoft will have Expression Web Designer out in late 2006. Pricing has not been determined.