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Forest Key is leading Microsoft into uncharted territory for the software giant: the land of professional design tools. After years of continual leadership in the developer tools space, Microsoft is marching in with a set of tools for designers, having announced its Expression suite last month.

Key, who is director of product management for Microsoft’s design tools, is indicative of the new breed of Microsoft employee. He is steeped in the designer world and has worked as both a creator and a user of the technology. Key previously worked at Macromedia— which has since been acquired by Adobe Systems, one of the primary companies Microsoft will be competing with in its new push—on the Flash platform.

It is no secret that when Microsoft wants to enter a new market it goes out and gets the talent to make its move credible and to swiftly produce a viable first offering. It did so in the enterprise operating system space, hiring folks like Dave Cutler from Digital Equipment Corp. and others from IBM, it has done so in the search and Web services spaces with strategic hires, and it is doing so again in the design tools space with folks like Forest Key.

Key is an artsy fellow who speaks of a passion to both enable designers and developers through new, better tools, and also witness the products and content those tools can help to create.

“In tools, you live for enabling capability in others—to be able to say, ‘We made that possible,’” Key told eWEEK in an interview on Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., campus.

Key has had a high-level taste of the creative side of the business. Before he worked at Macromedia, Key worked in the film industry for Hollywood, at Industrial Light & Magic, a Lucasfilm company founded by movie special effects giant George Lucas. Key even has his own entry in the Internet Movie Database citing his work on movies such as “Star Wars” and “Big Love.” The software and processes Key helped create have been used to produce several movies, including “Mission Impossible,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix,” as well as TV commercials for Honda Motor Co., he said.

Key said in his days at ILM he would spend up to 70 hours a week using expensive hardware and software to render scenes for films. Yet, he said he knew he could create tools that could cut both the time and cost of producing the same material.

“At the time there was a product called Flame by Discreet Logic, now Autodesk [acquired by Autodesk], that cost $500,000,” Key said. “The complete system we used was $1 million, because before desktops were powerful enough we had to do everything on SGI [Silicon Graphics] machines.”

So Key and two others from ILM left the company to form Puffin Designs, which produced Commotion, a visual effects application for video, film, and digital content creation professionals. Puffin later sold Commotion to Pinnacle Systems, which then was acquired by and remains a division of Avid Technology, where Key said he worked while he was in college.

“With version 1 of Commotion we solved the process of rotoscoping,” Key said. “We realized it didn’t take a million-dollar machine to do it. We took that to the desktop.”

Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame.

Key draws on his past, but said he likes to look ahead and has a 10-year plan for where Microsoft and the industry will be with graphics, design and multimedia technology.

eWEEK Labs finds Expression Blend to be an interesting option for design-oriented staff. Click here to read more.

“In the next five to 10 years we’ll see interactivity on physical things, like in [the movie] ‘Minority Report,’” he said.

Key sprinkles movie references into his conversation.

“In the movie ‘Brazil’ they had a very dark, fatalistic view of the future and computing,” Key said. “I am an eternal optimist about science fiction and how we’ll use computers and the [user] interface. And I think we’ll get to the point where it’ll [the user interface] be voice-activated or gesture-activated. And Microsoft can enable that because we do think long-term where other companies only think like six months to a year down the road.”

Next Page: Visions of changing the world.

Having worked at Macromedia on Flash and Flash Video, Key said his interest in interactivity, multimedia and the Web was whetted. But something was lacking.

“That’s how I got interested in Microsoft; I was charmed by the vision here to change the world,” Key said.

Indeed, in a blog post from December of last year, Key describes how an engineering manager on the Macromedia Flash team came back from Microsoft’s 2003 PDC (Professional Developer’s Conference) and told him of a demo that signaled the direction Microsoft was heading, and it made Key want to have a closer look.

In the PDC demo, “Adobe After Effects was used to output this new markup language called ‘XAML’ [Extensible Application Markup Language], and then Windows magically was able to render a rich multimedia representation of the experience, in real-time, on hardware rendering…,” Key wrote in the blog post. “The idea that such skills (those of my own, as an advanced After Effects user) and a yet to be released Windows technology would allow for a real-time design experience for actual applications… I was hooked,” he said.

Key describes WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) and the Microsoft technology code-named WPF/E, or Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere, as foundational technologies that provide “ways in which the developer and designer community can build rich content experience for both Windows and the Web. Meanwhile, the tools in the Microsoft Expression Suite—Expression Web, Expression Blend, Expression Design, and Expression Media—”complement each other to enable the development of applications,” he said.

eWEEK Labs says Expression Web could be a more significant release than even Vista and Office 2007 Click here to read more.

Moreover, Key credits Microsoft for enabling him to build a team to focus on the user experience, and for the company’s “acknowledgement of individual contribution.” He said his team includes people from varied backgrounds including creative designers, lab researchers, cinematic experts, software developers, site designers, print experts and even a rock musician.

But they all unite to help Microsoft build its next-generation platform for designers that will enhance workflow between developers and designers.

That notion is only starting with the Expression tools, he said. “With Expression, we’re not nearly done,” Key added.

Obviously, some of the overall vision for where Microsoft wants to take Expression is in the version 1.0 products—which are either shipping or in some form or preview or other. But fully achieving that vision will take a few more years of that 10-year plan Key talks about. That means more years and more people to work on the projects.

“Each year we’re hiring more and more people,” Key said. “Right now we have up to 70 positions we need to hire.”

Indeed, Key said he believes that Microsoft, overall, “has to grow by an entire company to meet our targets. We just can’t hire enough people fast enough.”

Meanwhile, the Expression tools are among the wave of Microsoft technologies that have taken advantage of the company’s CTP (Community Technology Preview) process. CTPs are part of Microsoft’s move toward greater transparency.

“From the industry I come from, you never put anything out until it was done,” Key said.

Yet, the Expression tools, particularly Blend, underwent “dramatic changes” in direction and implementation based on feedback from the CTPs, Key said.

Asked whether Microsoft might consider delivering an Express version of its Expression tools, Key said Microsoft is taking a pyramid approach to delivering its design technology. Microsoft’s Express versions of its Visual Studio development tools are lightweight tools aimed at hobbyists, students and novice developers.

“There are people like those at ILM that have very sophisticated needs, and there are people who don’t require as much from a tool,” Key said. “You see a significant increase in volume as you move down the pyramid.”

Moreover, Key said he sees a future where the designer has a role in the Microsoft Visual Studio Team System enterprise development system.

Meanwhile, to gain traction in the design world, Key knows Microsoft needs to reach out to the community. Microsoft will hold its second Mix conference in Las Vegas in April. Microsoft described last year’s conference as “a 72-hour conversation between Web developers, designers and business leaders.”

Said Key of the company’s efforts to continue its outreach: “We’re going to do a lot more events like Mix to bring together different constituencies.”

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