Microsoft's new Expression Studio suite (available online for about £450) brings together four programs that stake out some new territories for Microsoft and strengthen the company's presence in existing ones.

Whenever Microsoft introduces a new set of products, it's worth paying close attention. Microsoft doesn't always get it right, particularly first time out - early versions of Internet Explorer, for example, were terrible - but over time it learns lessons that you sometimes only learn by being an underdog. And Microsoft usually stays in the game.

Microsoft Expression Web is the latest incarnation of FrontPage, an adjunct to Microsoft Office, while Expression Design, Expression Blend and Expression Media are entirely new applications. They're meant to work together as a design suite for the internet and for desktop applications, especially as a way to support Microsoft's Silverlight technology and the .Net platform in general.

Microsoft's Silverlight is intended as a competitor to Adobe's Flash in some respects. Silverlight lets you run rich internet applications in a browser but also includes some more advanced features such as JavaScript functionality (you can command a Silverlight app with JavaScript) and AJAX (a Silverlight app can dynamically load content from somewhere else). To that end, Expression Studio is the first iteration of a set of tools to allow people to create those apps.

Microsoft Expression Studio tools can be used on their own for other things - if you just want to pick up Expression Web and use that to work on your existing website, you can do so - but it's clear that Microsoft wants this to be the first step toward making Silverlight as common a presence on the web as Flash itself. For now, the individual pieces are intriguing, and we'll examine each of them in turn.

First, a note about Expression Studio's availability. Right now, all four applications in the suite are available as fully functional, 60-day trial downloads - a good way to get your hands on them before they are officially released.

The current iteration of the Microsoft Expression Studio suite contains Expression Blend 1.0 - discussed below - but Blend 2.0 is already in a preview (beta) form with a 180-day trial period. We feel that Microsoft Expression Blend 2.0 will be released long after both Blend 1.0 and the full Studio product are out in stores, and people who bought Blend in either form will get a free upgrade.

Also available only in its free trial form is Expression Media Encoder, which converts video into the proprietary VC-1 codec used by Silverlight.

Quick links:

Microsoft Expression Web

Microsoft Expression Design

Microsoft Expression Media

Microsoft Expression Blend

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