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   ► KBWebsite DesignMS Expressio...   Print This     
  From the January 2008 Issue of Prestwood eMag
Design MS Expression Web:
First Look at Microsoft Expression Web
Posted 13 years ago on 7/10/2006 and updated 1/9/2008
Take Away: First Look at Microsoft Expression Web Designer


First Look at Microsoft Expression Web Designer

by Kim Berry

Microsoft had released the first of likely several Community Technology Preview (CTP) of their upcoming Expression Web Designer (EWD). It is a free download that expires in February 2007, 225meg, and requires that the .NET 2.0 framework be installed on the development box. However it generates standard HTML that can be hosted just about anywhere. It also contains ASP.NET 2.0 server controls and support common server controls with Visual Studio 2005. But if server controls are used then the host must support the .NET 2.0 framework - a point that might escape many web developers.

This is your chance to help shape the product. If you have a suggestion you can reach the developer team through the discussion forum.

Without reading the documentation I ran EWD and selected "Create New Website" then selected from among the dozen plus templates. "File | Preview in Browser" provided IE 6 with different dimensions, and an option to specify additional browsers. The template created a fully functional website. Within an hour I had tweaked content, menus, images, and the style sheet to get a feel for the environment.

Is this just FrontPage++?

The template site included a file "master.dwt" which contained the common template for the entire site. (I understand that FrontPage also uses .dwt files, but I have never used them.) From there I could modify the header image and menu options. The fonts and colors could be tweaked in the stylesheet. I renamed one of the folders and the path in a hyperlink in master.dwt also updated.

If a section of text his highlighted and font changes applied, rather than wrapping a font tag around the section, it creates a new stylesheet entry local to the page, which presumably could be copied to the .css file.

I have limited experience with the primary contender, Adobe Dreamweaver. But according to this article, Microsoft's Expression Web Designer vs. Adobe's Dreamweaver - First look: Let the rumble begin by Matthew David, "Expression Web Designer is not FrontPage. It is a professional tool . . . Unlike Dreamweaver, Expression Web Designer is not built on a legacy of changing standards. Expression Web Designer was built from the ground up to support Web 2.0 and the standards for today." Matthew fails to call a clear winner, but acknowledges that Microsoft is now in that league.

A peek in the toolbox resolves that this is not FrontPage. Expression provides the ASP.NET 2.0 Controls. The validation controls eliminate the need to write JavaScript validations, and the Data Controls: XmlDataSource, GridView, etc. are extremely powerful.

Merging ASP.NET Controls with the DWT Templates

The FAQ on the Microsoft website is reassuring:

Expression Web Designer draws on site functionality and Web services created in Visual Studio, and both products can be used collaboratively between designers laying out pages and developers building back-end functionality. ASP.NET 2.0 code and controls are fully compatible, and the design preview surface within both products is identical so that designers and developers can work on the same solution and build the better end-user experiences.

When the server controls are dragged to the form, they appear, but clicking will not bring up a code-behind, and there is no server form. When I manually entered a server form it reported the error that "the attributed 'runat' is not permitted for the

." Don't manually enter a form tag!

When attempting to save after dropping an ASP.NET Component on a .htm page a dialog "You should rename this page with a file extension of ".aspx." pops up.

Once renamed, the tag "

" appears just below in golden, as if it is part of the DWT, allowing support for the ASP.NET controls.

From "File | New": You can either create a raw .aspx page, or have the option of creating a .htm page as "Create from Dynamic Web Template" and selecting a DWT file. However, once a .aspx page is created, the option "Format | Dynamic Web Template | Attach Dynamic Web Template ..." will embed the template within the ASPX file. (There is a similar option for attaching a master page to the .aspx file - a feature that I don't believe exists in VS 2005.)

I added a link from the menu on the master.dwt to the new .aspx page, and the environment updated all the internal links. But as I expected, aspx files cannot run in the "Preview in Browser" mode:

The solution was to modify "Site Settings" to preview all web pages with the ASP.NET development server:

Et voila. I was able to implement the validation controls. I added a Calendar control from both VS 2005 and EWD. The process was identical: Each environment allowed me to select from the same auto format color schemes.


RSS Newsfeed using ASP.NET Controls

From within Expression I was able to use the XmlDataSource and Repeater controls to display an RSS Feed from Google News:

1) From http://news.google.com query for a some news, then select the RSS link in the left column:

2) Drag an XmlDataSource to the page. Paste the Google URL that is displaying XML into the DataFile property and "/rss/channel/item" into the XPath property:

3) Drag a Repeater control to the page and bind it to the XmlDataSource

4) Insert the highlighted code:

5) It should work:

The Development Environment

The environment feels like a cross between FrontPage and Visual Studio 2005. The folder-list on the left, file tabs on the top, and Design | Split | Code | Preview buttons are the bottom are the same as FrontPage. Viewing the .htm file below, notice that the code that resides in the .dwt file has a golden background and cannot be modified.

When the .dwt file is modifed then saved, it prompts whether to update the other files, displaying a log when complete:


Why am I disappointed?

I am disappointed that the templates are boring. I expected support for drop-down and pop-up menus within the template. I expected templates that include rounded-edged tables, such as on the Expression Website itself:

I was advised that the default templates do no support this. This is accomplished either by purchasing (or obtaining) a template that includes the shapes, or creating them in a graphics program.

Who is the target audience for Expression?

A key problem with Expression is an apparent failure to target an audience. I posted this feedback on June 12, 2006 on the Microsoft Feedback site. So far it has been ignored:

Expression Web Designer (EWD) did not meet my expectations. With the hoopla about XAML and tight integration with ASP.NET, I expected the project to:

1) Primarily target Windows hosts, which soon will be .NET 2.0. Instead the only templates are DWT, which target, I suppose, Linux hosting.

2) I expected to be able to select e.g. a "skin, motif, template,sample project", and create a site in the same style as the Microsoft website, with menus in a masterpage, including the rounded tables, like the tables and presentation on this page:


While that link is ASPX, EWD does not provide any "starter site" for .NET features. So what good is EWD for working in conjunction with ASP.NET?

How will DWT templates "seamlessly integrate" when developers have a 100 page ASP.NET site and the "GUI guys" prepare develop a DWT site? With DWT, if any page is renamed or any change is made to a header or menu, the entire site must be re-ftp'd up. With DWT the entire site must be checked out of version control to make the change -- and for what? So this can be hosted on Linux?

Why are you basing this allegedly cutting edge product on obsolete technology? What Microsoft URLs use DWT?


When creating a new website: A wizard asks if the hosting will support ASP.NET 2.0. If not, gray out the ASP.NET controls and display a dialog stating the limitations that will imposed.

Alternately drop DWT entirely and let Dreamweaver run itself into the ground when EWD targeted for ASP.NET blows it away in the reviews and power. Within a year there will be plenty of ASP.NET 2.0 hosts to select from. (Both ISPs that I use provided the option several months ago.)

Shops considering using both Expression and Visual Studio to develop ASP.NET 2.0 websites should give serious consideration to the issues I raised.

Technical problems encountered with Beta-1

This dialog kept popping up when I was not even running Expression, even though I had already rebooted after the install. And restarting does not make it go away. (Issue: Why does installation require a reboot? I thought rebooting after install was no longer requires in the XP/Vista world.)

I used to have many problems with FrontPage "bots." Generally this product appeared stable, but twice it did hit an error:

However I'm confident that these problems will be resolved in upcoming beta releases.


Can you use Expression to replace FrontPage today?

I would use this product today to create menu-intensive websites that were not web applications based on server content. I would certainly use it if the host did not support .NET 2.0. Otherwise I would use VS 2005 and utilize master pages and the controls provided in that environment, and would not try to develop the same site with both tools.

If a site is going to require ASP.NET controls, then it may as well use the Navigation controls, which then seems to limit the usefulness of a DWT approach. I've also read that things like the tilde ~/ path indicator are not supported Expression.

About the Author

Kim Berry is currently developing in ASP.NET 2.0 in C#. He has a strong background in ASP classic, but only limited experience with FrontPage controls, and no experience with Dreamweaver. He can be reached at kim@prestwood.com


Expression Web Designer Microsoft Discussion Forum




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Comment 1 of 1
Great article Kim! Thanks. I've been using it now for a few weeks and if you look closely at the new Expression Web Designer, it really feels like and probably is just the next version of Microsft FrontPage but with very needed ASP.Net and developer features added.
Posted 13 years ago
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Article Contributed By Kim Berry:

Kim Berry is an experienced coder currently specializing in VS.Net C# coding of WinForm and WebForm applications. Kim currently works part time for Prestwood IT Solutions and participates in this online community when time allows. Kim worked fulltime at Prestwood Software for four years and is still available for part time evenings and weekends work. He was one of the main Prestwood developers developing ASPSuite and has coded in many languages including C, Visual Basic, Delphi, and Visual Studio.Net.

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