capsule review

Microsoft Expression Web

At a Glance
  • Microsoft Expression Web

    PCWorld Rating

    With its focus on CSS, XML, and other Web standards, this app lets you create modern, data-driven sites, but it requires a steep learning curve.

As the saying goes, there's no preacher like a reformed sinner. The proof that Microsoft got religion on Web standards is the company's new Expression Web program, which places Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), XML, and other industry standards at the core of its site design and management strategy. While some vestiges of the former FrontPage Web-design application remain--particularly in Expression Web's templates--the program is as close as Microsoft could get to a completely new product, and it adheres to those Web standards closer than many competitors' products do.

From a developer's perspective, Expression Web feels much more grown-up than FrontPage. While the program still shields Web designers from much of the code underlying their pages, the resulting sites should meet all Web design and accessibility standards. The trade-off for all the added functionality is the hours of training the program requires for non-coders, even with its many built-in CSS and XML helpers.

Expression Web is the first release in Microsoft's Expression Studio, a suite of programs for creative professionals that the company hopes will give Adobe's industry-leading Creative Suite a run for its money. Releasing later this year are the other three members of the Expression family: Expression Blend ($499), which combines desktop- and Web-application development and includes Visual Studio Standard; Expression Media ($299), which manages files and workflows; and Expression Design, which lets you create interface graphics (available only as part of the $599 Expression Studio package, which includes all of the apps).

The benefits of CSS for Web design are undeniable: Separating the content on your site's pages from the navigation, color schemes, and other design elements makes updating the site fast and simple. While you could develop and publish a site the old-fashioned way in Expression Web, CSS is the default for every new page and site you create, whether manually or from one of the program's many templates.

Expression Web goes to great pains to make CSS as approachable as possible. For example, when you choose a style, you see the attributes you can use for that style in a drop-down menu. The IntelliSense function lets you type just a letter or two to select options, and you can drag small pieces of code--called "snippets"--from one of the program's many palettes directly onto your page to add navigation elements, form fields, or other components.

Even with all this help, making the switch to CSS takes quite a bit of training. People migrating to this program from FrontPage should be prepared to set aside a day or two to get up to speed.

Expression Web's reliance on Microsoft's ASP.NET 2.0 framework brings it into the Visual Studio family of desktop application development tools; this lets an organization combine its Web and program-development efforts. A more welcome feature for many designers, however, is Expression Web's support for XML and Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT), which permits you to drag and drop links to dynamic XML data into your pages and format them easily for presentation on the Web. Your average, everyday personal or small-business site may not require XML support today, but as with CSS four or five years ago, it's inevitable: You'll likely be posting some kind of XML data in your pages before too long, if you aren't already.

In addition to linking seamlessly to desktop application development through Visual Studio, theoretically Expression Web will also work with the other members of the Expression Studio suite when they become available later this year. However, even though this $299 application is $100 less expensive than Dreamweaver, it can't match Dreamweaver's integration with Photoshop and the other design apps in Adobe's Creative Suite for team development.

Despite a few lingering traces of old FrontPage features (such as the spinning-globe icon you see as files transfer), Expression Web is a giant step up from that program, and an appealing upgrade for any FrontPage users who want to convert their sites to CSS and XML.

Dennis O'Reilly

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    With its focus on CSS, XML, and other Web standards, this app lets you create modern, data-driven sites, but it requires a steep learning curve.

    Pros

    • Suppports CSS, XML, and other Web standards
    • Makes CSS as approachable as possible

    Cons

    • Presents a challenging learning curve
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