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Is Microsoft's Sparkle the New Flash?

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Anyone who spends any time on the Web is familiar with Flash presentations. They're practically inescapable, they're usually fast, and they're easy to create. And now, they're in danger of being replaced—that is, if you’re buying what Microsoft has to sell you. Matthew David previews Microsoft's answer to the ubiquitous Flash: a new product whose beta name is "Sparkle."
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Earlier this year, Adobe made a big stir by acquiring Macromedia. The point of the acquisition, it can be argued, was Macromedia's Flash, the rationale being that Flash is delivering on the promise of what's possible through the Internet. While dynamic Flash applications from banking to insurance to digital photos have been spawning all over the Internet, it appeared that Microsoft was too focused on search, XML, and .NET to notice this revolution.

Guess again.

Microsoft recently announced a new product called Expression Sparkle Interactive Designer, which is one of three products in the upcoming Expression family. The other two are Expression Acrylic Graphics Designer (an illustration and graphics design tool) and Expression Quartz Web Designer (a tool for designing Web sites).

All That Glitters Is Not Flash

Acrylic Product Manager Forest Kay describes Sparkle this way: "Sparkle Interactive Designer is a bridge product between the graphics illustrator, creating drawings with Expression Graphics Designer, and the application developer using Visual Studio 2005." Through Sparkle, designers can create graphically pleasing interactive experiences in a common format shared with the programmers.

At a recent conference, Microsoft Senior Vice President Jim Allchin delivered something unexpected and exciting—a version of Microsoft's new Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) running in Apple's Safari on a Mac. Next, he took the presentation and ran it in Internet Explorer 7, and then he wrapped up the presentation running WPF on a mobile phone. The version of WPF he was running is a stripped-down version called Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere (WPF/E), which has many of the bells and whistles you'll find in the full WPF for Windows Vista. What WPF/E doesn't have is support for 3D, hardware accelerators, and some of the high-end features that only power developers really want in Windows Vista.

The core of WPF/E is XAML (pronounced ZAM-ul), the XML presentation language for WPF graphics, with JavaScript providing interaction. This means that WPF/E can use Acrylic Graphic Designer illustrations and many of the features within Sparkle.

Allchin believes that Microsoft is "light-years ahead of anyone else in this space." By "anyone else," he indirectly refers to two technologies: Macromedia's Flash and SVG. In many ways, Allchin's comment is more rhetoric than fact. Many of the features built in Macromedia's Flash 8 mirror those of the preview version of WPF/E. On the other side of the coin, Apple has been stoically working to add SVG support to Safari. Both of these technologies compete directly for WPF/E space.

On the whole, the Flash development community is treating the new WPF/E solution from Microsoft with a certain amount of skepticism. Theodore Patrick, founder and acting CEO of IFBIN Networks and a prominent Flash evangelist, puts it pretty strongly: "The WPF/E initiative is very similar to the threat posed by SVG. SVG had WC3 standards support [and] Adobe's financial backing, but failed to compete with Flash. The Macromedia Flash Player is widely deployed, backwardly compatible, cross-platform, cross-device, and is available today. In the end, Flash will continue to be the gold standard for interactive development because it works."

WPF/E is certainly an interesting new technology. There's no doubt that the new Web is going to be all about presentation, whether you choose Flash, WPF/E, or SVG. At this time, the only real loser is good old-fashioned HTML.

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