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Mix 09: Microsoft Improves Web Development Tools

Expression Web 3, the next version of Microsoft's Web development software, will include a feature called SuperPreview.

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Microsoft showed off improved Web development and design software Wednesday at its Mix Web developer conference, including a rapid Web application prototyping feature in Expression Blend and a browser compatibility feature in Expression Web.

Expression Web 3, the next version of Microsoft's Web development software, will include a feature called SuperPreview, which allows Web developers to see how their Web pages look in multiple browsers, even ones they don' t currently have installed. Super Preview uses a cloud service to help with that, and can therefore show developers writing Web pages on Windows what their sites will look like in various Mac browsers as well.

SuperPreview will support at least Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer, as the demonstration Wednesday showed. It will potentially compete with an application Adobe has under development called Meer Meer.

In SuperPreview -- a standalone version of which that supports only Internet Explorer is available now -- developers can overlay different browser views over the control version of their layout to immediately identify any differences. In the overlay, developers will be able to see key information on site elements to help them diagnose problems. However, user interaction will not show up in SuperPreview because the preview is static. That could limit SuperPreview's usability in a day where more and more Web sites are becoming highly dynamic. Expression Web 3 also will add support for PHP and better CSS diagnostics.

Expression Blend 3, Microsoft's rich Web application design software, includes a feature called SketchFlow that allows Web designers to rapidly prototype rich Web applications. Specifically, SketchFlow lets designers create sketches and even working mock-ups of application workflows and behaviors without doing any coding.

That way, clients, business managers and others can see what a site will look like and how it will act earlier in the development process than in the past, while developers and designers can experiment with different ideas and bounce them off clients throughout the development process.

"[SketchFlow] fundamentally shifts the way you build apps, and the way the agency and the designer collaborate," Brian Goldfarb, director of developer platform and tools at Microsoft, said in an interview. "Today, the prototyping process starts with ideation and to completion, there are about six steps in between. This actually combines those middle steps into a cohesive unit."

For now, SketchFlow will only be available as part of Expression Blend, though clients will be able to view prototypes without Expression software. That limits its use to .Net and Silverlight apps. Goldfarb racked this up to the fact that designers tend to prototype richer experiences more often than HTML, but if that were the case, SketchFlow also appears to be a feature that Flash and Ajax designers could appreciate.

The next version of Expression Blend will also allow designers to import Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator files and will add XAML, C# and Visual Basic IntelliSense support for those who want to do some heavier coding.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on Windows 7. Download the report here (registration required).

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