Is Image Everything to Microsoft?

LOS ANGELES — One theme of Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference is enhancing the appearance of applications and Web pages. Fitting really, given the city.

A key example is the new Expression Suite, which includes tools to design 3-D graphics and animation.

“People are visual animals,” Thomas Murphy, a Microsoft group program manager, said during a panel session here. “In a world where a lot of services and products are becoming commodities, user experience is the only differentiator.”

Retailers are the most logical buyers of software that delivers a visual punch. Online shoppers can manipulate product images and video to get a full view of the product they’re shopping for.

The North Face, maker of outdoor clothing and gear, showed off a new media-rich presentation (designed by San Francisco-based Fluid) with new Microsoft tools.

Others said the software has promising uses inside companies. For example, a bank could develop software to illustrate all the accounts and assets associated with certain customers or group of customers.

“[Companies] are very interested in getting this into their [internal] applications,” said Steve Dadoly, director of development for Infragistics, a publisher of Microsoft-compatible development tools.

Not everyone is so sanguine. Several audience members questioned whether Microsoft was creating slick graphics “just because it can” and without enough thought about usability and industry standards.

“Why should we think it’s going to work this time?” one attendee asked skeptically.

Panelists said as the new tools make their way into the development community, their value will become evident and customers won’t want to use older applications.

It’s different this time,” Dadoly said. “There is a transition point here.”

But perhaps a more concrete reason why Microsoft should be optimistic has more to do with a business sense rather than an artistic one.

In addition to making it easier to create animation and graphics, the Expression Suite also streamlines the process of developing applications by improving collaboration between designers and developers.

Nathan Moody, director of interactive media at Fluid, said that saves time in the development process and will help his firm be more responsive to clients’ requests — especially ones that come in at the last minute.

“[Designers and developers] can work in parallel,” Moody said. “It removes some feasibility issues where we’ve had to say we have to scale back projects.”

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