Good user interfaces are an important part of successful applications, but sometimes efficient interfaces are lost in translation when designers hand off interface ideas to developers. Microsoft is looking to address this disconnect for workers in the .NET space with a painting and graphics design software product code-named Acrylic.
The software -- now in its second release as a Community Technology Preview -- is a rare foray for Microsoft into the computer graphics world epitomized by Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. The second release has special interest for software developers. Designs can now be exported to XAML (extensible application markup language) used by the Windows Presentation Foundation (formerly code-named Avalon) that underlies the Windows Vista (formerly Longhorn client) operating system.
Microsoft's software package works with both vector- and bit-mapped designs -- something that requires two packages, at least in the Adobe world, today, said Forest Key, group product manager in the development tools division at Microsoft.
In fact, fusion is one of the themes for the Acrylic pack. Key said the capabilities to do intermingling of various media via XML were available previously to developers, but the developers were required to use a variety of tools and work in an assortment of formats.
"In the past, bringing them together was very complex," he said. "The main thing about Windows Presentation Foundation and XAML [rhymes with "camel"] is that this is unified. So, a unified [framework] can be used when a developer or designer is describing audio, animation, two-dimensional maps or list-view types of controls, which can be localized and accessible," Key added.
Said Dave Blatner, author and graphics art consultant for Moo.com, "Acrylic is really quite extraordinary. It has some stuff that is better than Paint Shop -- for example, its image stitching or montage capability." Blatner, who has tested Acrylic, said, "On the other hand, the product is immature. It is a 1.0 project at this point."
I'd walk a mile for a XAML
For many, Acrylic's one-click XAML export is the prime area of interest. It could change the way application designers and developers interact.
Says Microsoft's Key: "Now, a design-creative person can go to the files menu and export work as XAML. It exports a declarative markup file for display within applications [running Windows Presentation Foundation]."
"The idea is to bring the workflow of the designer and the developer closer together. Those rich interactions are communicated today using paper or e-mail with BMP file attachments," he said.
"Now designers can hand off XAML and the developer can add to it. And the application is consuming that XAML code," Key continued.
Said Acrylic user Blatner: "XAML has the potential for being a huge paradigm shift in the design and development worlds."
"I come more from a print and a professional prepress background, and I have been moving to the Web. The infrastructure for the desktop publishing revolution was [Adobe] PostScript. HTML was impressive but it didn't work for the whole world," explained Blatner. "Now, I look at XAML and think, 'this is like PostScript for onscreen development.'"
"To me, it's fascinating that Acrylic is spitting out XAML," he said. Blatner also noted that since XAML is, like XML, ASCII-based, it is easily editable. "There are huge benefits."
More effective user interfaces may be in the offing, but this may happen over an extended period, suggests Kerry Bodine, senior analyst in Customer Experience, Forrester Research.
"When you start putting all your graphics into XAML, you can create a lot of interesting effects that you can't do with two-dimensional graphics," she said.
"Now the developers have a lot more that they can do with these objects," said Bodine.
Still there are issues.
"Not just with Acrylic, but with the Windows Presentation Foundation as well, they are giving you lots of rope to hang yourself with," said Bodine. The situation could be likened to the early days of Web page design when developers discovered animated GIFs.
"You can do a lot of cool stuff, but I don't think you should," said Bodine, who added, "the best practices for using these tools will evolve over time."
But, in terms of designers working more effectively with developers, she indicated, XAML and Windows Presentation Foundation is a more immediate step forward.
The layered look
With its layered imagery and developer hooks, Acrylic may bear some resemblance to Macromedia Studio and Flash development tools as well. After several years, Macromedia Inc.'s penetration into the developer ranks is still short of its penetration into Web and Web graphics designer ranks. Microsoft, too, has a job ahead of it -- to convert designers as well as its already-in-place coterie of devoted developers and to make a success of Acrylic, or whatever it becomes known as after its code name is jettisoned.
Acrylic tester Blatner doesn't particularly subscribe to any Macromedia analogies - he sees Apple-style computing a possible objective.
"I am a Mac diehard," said Blatner, "and this is the first time I have been really impressed with what Microsoft is doing."
He sees it as a positive point that XAML via Windows Presentation Foundation is 'embedded' in Vista, much as Mac drawing traits are intrinsic to the Mac OS. "To me, there is a huge difference between slapping something on top of and operating system, and baking it in," said Blatner.
Acrylic pages [including access to downloads] - Microsoft.com