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At its upcoming Professional Developers Conference next month, Microsoft Corp. is set to shed more details on its developer-oriented graphics tool, code-named Sparkle.

Sparkle will be one element of the upcoming Expression Studio suite of design and developer tools for the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), formerly known as Avalon. Expression Studio also is expected to be unveiled at the PDC, sources said.

Expression Studio also will feature a design tool Microsoft has code-named Acrylic, which Microsoft said last week will support the Microsoft Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML). Other components of Expression Studio will be delivered over time, sources said.

Sources said the primary goal of the Expression suite is to solidify Microsoft’s presence in the developer space by not conceding the design market to Adobe/Macromedia.

Word of the existence of Sparkle first leaked in 2003. Since then, the Sparkle team has grown to about two dozen staffers, sources said, and is headed by Kavi Singh. One member of the Sparkle team is Lutz Roeder, the creator of .Net Reflector, which is a class browser and decompiler, sources added.

As of last week, the company still would not comment on Sparkle, or even acknowledge the code name exists.

Sparkle will be targeted at developers of a variety of business, Web and online training/sales applications—all markets that make heavy use today of Macromedia’s Flash platform, sources said. Sources added that Sparkle also will be able to run on a variety of devices, as it will rely on a compact version of the WPF that is similar in packaging and positioning to the current .Net Compact Framework technology.

Microsoft is looking to push the Expression suite in lockstep with its Visual Studio developer tools suite to make designers key participants in the development process. So, for instance, in a scenario using the Visual Studio Team System (VSTS) tool set, designers can use the Expression tools to build user interfaces, graphics content and designs to be handed off to developers, requirements analysts, testers, architects and other roles supported by VSTS, sources said.

Elements of Sparkle—also known in some circles as a “Flash killer”—ultimately could become a set of system application programming interfaces (APIs) in the Windows operating system. Specifically, these APIs could become part of the WPF graphics engine, which will be part of the upcoming Windows Vista and available for Windows XP as a service pack.

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In addition, Sparkle APIs in the operating system will be accessible from any .Net-supported language, sources said. As Sparkle and Acrylic are designed to work with Microsoft Office products, “creating nice animated graphics on a Web site becomes more and more of a Microsoft playground,” a source said.

While Acrylic and Sparkle make up the core of the Expression line, sources said other key bets to round out the tool set include a photo image editor and possibly support for movie making or DVD creation.

All of these moves put Microsoft into direct competition with Adobe/Macromedia and Apple Computer Inc.

Regarding Acrylic, a Macromedia spokeswoman said: “We have been and will continue to watch this tool closely, but at this time we don’t have any comments.”

After acknowledging that Expression Studio exists, a Microsoft spokeswoman said: “At this point this is all we are saying.”

Peter O’Kelly, an analyst with Burton Group Inc., said: “It’s mandatory for Microsoft, as it brings its vision for unified content/applications/multimedia in Windows Presentation Foundation to fruition, to provide tools that address the entire designer/developer continuum. Microsoft also has to lead with XAML-related tools; it can’t defer to other software vendors for tools that are critical to the success of Vista.”

However, “If Microsoft is successful, this will represent the most significant competitive threat Adobe/Macromedia has seen in many years, although Adobe/Macromedia will also be able to benefit by releasing product updates that exploit XAML and other facets of Windows Presentation Foundation—it’s a classic ‘coopetition’ context,” O’Kelly added.

“We’re certainly always interested in what Microsoft does, but keep in mind that Flash [as well as Photoshop and Fireworks] are very mature products,” said Kendall Whitehouse, senior director of information technology at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “The Flash’s SWF file format is a very rich presentation format that remains sufficiently ‘lightweight’ to keep downloads small and performance efficient. And, of course, it’s a cross-platform solution available on all major browsers and operating systems.”

Paul Colton, CEO and founder of Xamlon Inc., of La Jolla, Calif., said his company plays in the middle ground between Microsoft and Adobe. “We say use the design tools that are so great out of Adobe, but also use the world’s best development tool, which is Visual Studio,” he said. “We can take .Net executables and allow them to run in the Flash platform, so you can write in Visual Studio and deploy to the Adobe Flash platform.”

Indeed, “Xamlon provides a bridge between Microsoft’s and Adobe’s competing technologies,” Colton said. “We allow developers to leverage .Net and eventually XAML, and target Windows and Flash. Currently developers can’t use Microsoft’s programming languages for Web development, but Xamlon Web is filling that gap. No other company fits in the middle that way.”

Moreover, Colton said he uses Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, and “I don’t see a compelling reason to switch. But if Acrylic is fully integrated into Visual Studio it becomes much more interesting to me.”

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