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Originally published Monday, March 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft design team beefed up with veterans as competition in Web applications heats up

In its bid to challenge Adobe in the market for creating and presenting applications on the Web, Microsoft has hired several people with...

Seattle Times technology reporter

In its bid to challenge Adobe in the market for creating and presenting applications on the Web, Microsoft has hired several people with a particular pedigree.

Their résumés include stints at Adobe and Macromedia (acquired by Adobe in 2005), working on some of the very products Microsoft is looking to unseat with its year-old design software and Web application platforms.

Their reasons for coming to Microsoft vary, but a consistent theme is the desire to take a fresh approach to the graphics and design tools they worked on earlier in their careers.

Microsoft benefits in several ways, not least of which is the credibility these new hires bring from years of working at the companies that created today's industry standard, or as professional designers themselves.

As the Internet came to the fore, good design and user experience became a way for businesses to separate themselves from the pack online.

"You could tell the Web sites that had a designer. It started to become clear that there was a business advantage," said Brad Becker, group product manager for Silverlight, Microsoft's answer to Flash, the widely used online video and animation platform Adobe obtained with its acquisition of Macromedia.

Today, computer use increasingly involves Internet-based applications or working directly on Web sites, through a browser. This threatens to diminish the importance of Microsoft's traditional strongholds of desktop operating systems and software.

As part of a companywide effort to adapt to this new environment, Microsoft released a set of design tools under the Expression Studio brand last year. Last week, at its Mix conference for Web developers and designers in Las Vegas, Microsoft released test versions of Expression Studio 2.

New test versions of Silverlight, its online video and application platform, and Internet Explorer 8 got most of the attention at Mix, but Expression Studio should not be overlooked, said Chris Swenson, an analyst at The NPD Group.

"The tooling side, what makes all this stuff possible, they made a lot of advances," he said. "... What really amazes me is they said they're committed to fast release cycles — 12-month release cycles — and they're delivering on this."

Adobe, on the other hand, plans to release new versions of its hugely popular Creative Suite every 18 months. And while Adobe leads in features now, Microsoft's faster cycles should help narrow that gap, Swenson said.

It's the same strategy Adobe employed to take on Quark in the publishing-software market.

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Microsoft's new hires "know how to compete in the professional graphics-software market ... because they did it before," Swenson said.

New set of customers

The designers using these tools represent a new set of customers for Microsoft, which has traditionally focused on software developers.

"Designers ... were rarely involved in software — maybe just brought in for things like logos and icons," said Becker, who worked on Flex Builder, Flash, and the Flash Player at Macromedia.

Applications of all types are now built with designers and developers working in tandem.

In the competition for this market, Adobe and Microsoft are coming from their traditional strengths: Adobe is reinforcing its position with designers and courting developers, while Microsoft, which has a huge community of developers, is reaching out to designers.

That's where people like Jon Harris come in.

Harris is another Macromedia/Adobe veteran who joined Microsoft about a year and a half ago and is now product manager for its Expression Blend and Design products — competitors to Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash interactive content-authoring software.

Harris was a sales manager for Flash in Northern Europe and then worked on Flash Lite, a version of the software for mobile devices. Before that he spent a decade as a designer.

This community is not used to talking to Microsoft and probably had some "preconceived notions of what Microsoft is about," he said. Part of his job is to get designers excited about the company's technology.

Microsoft knows designers won't switch to its tools overnight.

Some of Adobe's products — or their ancestors — have been in use for two decades.

Eric Zocher, general manager of Expression Studio, said Microsoft is focusing first on designers at "Microsoft shops" — existing customers of the company's software-development tools.

The next target is large advertising agencies and design firms that serve customers who use a range of platforms.

"We're starting to have an impact on those types of people," said Zocher, who has been involved with graphics tools since 1985, when he co-founded Silicon Beach Software.

That company made the first paint and draw program for the Macintosh and the predecessor to Photoshop. Zocher joined Microsoft about two years ago.

Attracting colleagues

As Microsoft has attracted design-industry veterans, they, in turn, have attracted their former colleagues.

Steve Guttman, product manager for Expression Web, was reunited with old friends, including Zocher, from his time at Adobe when he joined Microsoft eight months ago.

With Adobe, he was the first product manager for Photoshop and, along with Zocher and Douglas Olson (also an Adobe veteran now at Microsoft) had "a pretty significant effect on the programs that have now become standards: Illustrator, Premier and Photoshop," he said.

He described the Expression Studio team as "a little startup within a larger company."

Another major draw was the opportunity to "rethink a lot of the graphics paradigms and the way people work with graphics products in light of everything that's happened over the last 15 to 20 years," Guttman said.

It goes the other way, too.

Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's corporate vice in charge of the Silverlight and Expressions efforts, among others, pointed out that his best friend and the best man in his wedding, Mark Anders, left Microsoft for Macromedia and is now working on competing products at Adobe.

"I think both companies have a healthy respect for the other," Guthrie said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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