Microsoft has unveiled a suite of Web site design and graphics software that gives .NET developers a set of tools similar to those available from Adobe and Macromedia.

Sparkle Interactive Designer, a new tool for building 3D animation and graphics, is a part of the suite, called Microsoft Expression. Eric Rudder, senior vice president of the Server and Tools division at Microsoft, unveiled a pre-release version of Expression in his keynote at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles.

In addition to Sparkle, Expression includes Acrylic Graphic Designer, a painting and illustration tool, and Quartz Web Designer, a layout and design tool for building Web sites. All of the current names for the individual tools are Microsoft code names.

Preview versions ship

Microsoft Expression is now available as a Community Technology Preview (CTP), and the suite is expected to ship in 2006. Microsoft plans to make several more CTPs available before a full production version of the suite is released.

While Expression gives designers an alternative to using tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash and Macromedia Dreamweaver, it's not likely they will begin migrating in droves from those tools to Microsoft Expression anytime soon, said one analyst attending the PDC.

Macromedia's tools are most widely used on Macs, which is remains the platform of choice for graphics and Web designers, said Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst for Zapthink.

"Macromedia and Adobe aren't that threatened because they have a Mac installed base," he said. "Most designers prefer the Mac, and I don't see Microsoft offering Expression for the Mac anytime soon."

Free Expression

Instead, Microsoft Expression fills in a gap in Microsoft's own tools portfolio, he said. Microsoft has not previously had a compelling set of tools for graphics designers, so developers building applications for .NET now will have design tools that are closely integrated with Visual Studio, Microsoft core tool set for building .NET applications.

This kind of capability is similar to what Macromedia offers to Java developers with its Macromedia Flex tool, which enables programmers writing server-side Java code to work with GUI (graphical user interface) designers to create rich Internet applications, according to Macromedia.

Macromedia recently released Studio 8, a suite of its core design and development tools, including Dreamweaver, Flash Professional and Fireworks.

"We continue to watch all competitive and complementary technologies very closely, including this one," Jim Guerard, vice president of product management and product marketing for Macromedia, said of Microsoft Expression on Wednesday.