Windows Presentation Foundation: It’s Not Flash

I went to the Microsoft Campus yesterday to have an informal preview of some of the new Windows UI things to be announced next week (technically under NDA – so sue me).

In the lead-up to Longhorn (now “Vista” – the next version of Windows), one of Microsoft’s aims is to make the role of UI/UX design as important as that of coding in the overall development process. This will be done by the introduction of the “Windows Presentation Foundation” underpinned by XAML (pronounced “zamel”): a declarative language a bit like SVG or ActionScript. The capabilities of the Foundation are much like Flash (complete with animation, embedded video, 3D, alpha channel stuff, etc.). The similarity with Flash ends there though as it’s part of the underlying OS (via .NET) and not just a wimpy sandboxed runtime. Nobody asked The Security Question though…

While aspects of the Foundation will better under Vista, some of it will run under XP with .NET 2 when that ships later this/next year. A beta version of their vector/bitmap editor which runs XP SP2 will be called Microsoft Expression Designer is also available right now.

I was a little unclear what the future of this tool is (Photoshop competitor or just a replacement for MS Paint in Vista?), since they will also eventually ship Expression Interactive Designer and Expression Web Designer. We saw a quick demo of an application being built with the Interactive Designer and it was very Flash-like to look at. Data binding and other interesting stuff came out of the box as did time-lines and a nice zooming interface for the whole tool (which itself is written in XAML). The zooming will be a new feature in for Vista overall.

The idea they were pushing was that munchkins will be able to use the Expression tools to create XAML UI/applications and give them to developers running Visual Studio to integrate into proper apps. This in turn will mean applications can eschew boring old menus and dialogues for full-motion video wrapped around spinning bananas. The UX possibilities will explode: Expression will take over where Flash leaves off, websites will be gagging to develop Expression versions of their sites (Amazon, and, erm, Amazon). Oh, and accessibility is “built-in” (no demo of this yesterday though) and web deployment of the applications will assume clients run .NET (ie it’s Windows only).

Whether all this will be good for the actual user experience in the final analysis is an open question. What it means for the UX professionals of the future is also anyone’s guess, but having a UI development tool on a par with Visual Studio does sound rather nice.

As a final tidbit, a hot tip next week is to look out for an announcement from MS that has a drink in it’s name (but somehow I don’t think it’s going to be WINE) which will answer some possible questions around interoperability…