Multimedia developer Jered Cuenco calls it the "grey-box application" phenomenon: a web developer, befuddled by a graphic designer's computer-drawn mock-ups, delivers a prototype full of generic grey buttons, plain white backgrounds, oversized headlines and other crimes against visually interesting user interfaces.

"It just drives designers up the wall," said Cuenco, who works at Avenue A/Razorfish, an interactive design firm in Portland, Oregon.

Such results reflect the typically clumsy workflow between designers and developers, Cuenco said. He put part of the problem was that the software tools used by the respective camps don't communicate well with each other.

Expression fires at Flash

Microsoft hopes to solve that problem with its upcoming Expression suite of web-design software. At its Mix 06 conference in Las Vegas last week, the vendor worked to convince attendees – most of them loyal to Adobe products such as Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver – to add Expression to their toolboxes.

Set to ship this year, Expression will let designers work in drag-&-drop environments while producing underlying code in the Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML).

Cuenco said in advance of Mix 06 that although Adobe's software may be great for developing web-based applications for consumers, it can't compete with Vista's Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) framework for developing graphics-enhanced applications for business users.

"The things you can do in WPF, Flash can't do," Cuenco said. For example, with Expression, developers will be able to layer business applications with user interfaces that can be easily swapped out or customised by users, he said.

The combination of Vista, WPF and Expression could radically improve the usability of business applications, web portals and mini-applications such as "gadgets" and "widgets," said Bola Rotibi, an analyst at London-based consulting firm Ovum.

"The Expression tools are pretty sophisticated," Rotibi said. "Any CIO would be foolish not to have at least one eye on what's coming and [be] thinking, 'How do I make the most of this?'"

Uphill struggle likely

Some potential users were much less effusive about the Expression tools than Cuenco is.

Jeffrey Chiang, an interactive designer at design firm Gotomedia, said the user interface of the Expression Graphic Designer tool needs a lot of work to keep designers who are familiar with Adobe's products from getting frustrated.

Even if the new tools work as well as Microsoft claims they will, the company has its work cut out for it to lure users away from Adobe's tools, said Keith Cutcliffe, a developer at ProAssurance, a medical liability insurance provider.

"I don't know how they're going to do that," Cutcliffe said at Mix 06. He noted, though, that there are many more web designers using PCs now than there were a decade ago.

Joe Wilcox, an analyst at JupiterResearch in New York, agreed that although developers may see the benefits of adopting Expression, designers may not be so quick to climb on board. "Microsoft is operating under the presumption that when the developer and the designer work together, the developer is the lead," Wilcox said. "I'm not sure I buy that."