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New Longhorn Graphics Tool Called 'Flashkiller'

Top developers at Microsoft are working on a new graphics and animation toolset for Longhorn (the next generation of Windows) that could spell trouble for Macromedia's popular Flash MX and Director MX animation tools, sources familiar with the situation told internetnews.com.

Code-named "Sparkle," the tools under development would be integrated with Microsoft's .NET runtime environment. That would ultimately mean developers could have Flash- and Director-like animation and graphics tools ready-built for them soon after Longhorn hits the marketplace.

One source familiar with the project, who saw examples of the "Sparkle" toolset integrated with Microsoft's C# , said early prototypes have given rise to talk of its potential as a "Flashkiller" or even a "Director-killer," referring to Macromedia's popular Flash animation software and Director tool, which is best known for building small animations for CDs.

A spokesperson for Macromedia said the company does not comment on speculation or rumors about products not yet in release.

As for how the "Sparkle" project could pan out, a source familiar with the situation said much depends on the Longhorn build, which continues to morph even after the public airing of its pre-beta build (build 4051 of Longhorn) during Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles last week.

The news of yet another code-named project for Longhorn follows a flood of information about Microsoft's future product builds that rained down on the five-day PDC. Attendees got their hands on pre-beta versions of SQL Server ("Yukon"), Visual Studio .NET tools ("Whidbey") and a host of new graphics and animation rendering features in the Longhorn operating system.

Although demonstrations of Longhorn's capabilities at the conference did not include "Sparkle," a closer look at Longhorn's capabilities provides clues that Microsoft's vision for computing is based on providing tools for increasingly rich media and 3D vector graphics capabilities in computers and computing devices.

With graphics processors apparently following the same principles of Moore's Law and roughly doubling their data density every 18 months, as prices for computers continue to fall, many in the technology industry think the industry could be at another inflection point similar to the arrival of the browser in 1995. Only this time, advances in computing will be with animation, 3D and other rich media.

A lot of the goals Microsoft is aiming at with "Sparkle" are the same as those Flash is looking to accomplish, one source said. But the tool goes beyond Flash in delivering a .NET application that has access to all the APIs in Longhorn, and effectively takes animation beyond the browser to enable, say, three videos running at the same time as other graphics and animation.

Whether "Sparkle" would ship after Longhorn ships, which is now widely believed to be in 2006, is still an open question.

The news comes as the company continues its hiring spree of talent from all sectors of the technology industry, including former staff from Adobe, and as it doubles its R&D budget for its 2004 fiscal year to about $7 billion.

Still, for all the razzle-dazzle response that "Sparkle" has inspired by those that have seen it in action, the tool could also end up in Visual Studio or be given away with the operating system, one source said. It's too soon to tell.

And it's not the first time Microsoft, or Adobe for that matter, have tried to take on Macromedia's Flash, which is installed as a downloadable plug-in on roughly 95 percent of desktops that are Internet-enabled, said Scott Hamlin, a director of content for http://www.flashcomponents.com. (Jupitermedia, the parent company of this publication, licenses Hamlin's content in Flashcomponents.com, which is part of its ArtToday.com division.)

"Flash is one of the best technologies I know of that compresses vector imagery. It's mass compression, if you will. And Macromedia's innovation is in compressing that," he told internetnews.com.

Hamlin, who has also written several books about the software, such as "The Hidden Power of Flash Components," pointed to a prior build of a 3D graphics prototype for developers, which Microsoft at the time code-named "Chrome" in the late 1990s, that was thought of as a "Flashkiller" at the time. It wasn't.

But he also conceded that as a developer tool, Flash can leave some developers pulling their hair out and noted that recent product upgrades from Macromedia haven't exactly been a hit.

"It sounds like Longhorn is a way to implement Internet multi-media. I don't doubt that. Will it take over Flash? That's a longshot. First of all [Microsoft] would have to have a development environment" for building the graphics. "Flash is successful because it's accessible to a broad range of professional developers, as well as housewives that want to put animation on a Web site of a second grade class."

But where Flash has breadth in the market, sources familiar with the situation say "Sparkle" would provide depth to developers by offering vector based graphics that would conserve processing power through the use of declarative language in Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML, pronounced "zaml," a standard language for online transactions).

Microsoft has also said that the new Longhorn API's will enable developers to easily build rich user interfaces and applications with the graphics classes that provide animation, effects and "visually exciting images that exploit hardware acceleration."

Then again, software experts say, a lot can change between now and 2007, when the tools are expected to be released once Longhorn has stampeded into the marketplace.

Macromedia has also released new enhanced versions of its MX family of animation tools, including Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks. As previously reported in August, the overhaul is designed to appeal to the large community of programmers in Microsoft's Visual Basic.

As officials said at the time, Flash MX features video-editing controls as well as a programming metaphor that is "more like VB."

According to Macromedia, developers who have experience using tools such as Microsoft Visual Basic will appreciate the capability to design a form, add components, integrate with data, and build in application logic and navigation using a familiar interface.

One thing is clear: Microsoft's developers have apparently thrown down the gauntlet in developing new built-in graphics rendering tools that -- if integrated into the next-generation Windows operating system now called Longhorn -- could effectively force Flash and Director out of Windows desktops.