From Stone Age to XAML

I’m sitting beside the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney – the second largest stone circle in the British Isles – when my BlackBerry Pearl smartphone pings me with an email reminding me about a project I need to quote for. Surrounded by this great Neolithic monument, engulfed in the silence of this beautiful place, my thoughts are reluctantly returned to the many conversations I’ve been having over the last month or so about application development, and the need and desire for this to be as rapid as possible.

From Stone Age to XAML

We can only wonder what made them build such impressive monuments back in Neolithic times, and only guess at how long it would have taken – recent thinking among archaeologists is that they may have only needed to do around three days’ work each week to fulfil their food needs, and the rest of their week was free to hump stones! Given such long weekends, there was no great need for speed and, if we believe – as many experts do – that this circle of stones was a device for predicting solar events in their calendar, it could at a stretch be considered a very early example of application development (achieved in very-hard-ware).

Fast forwarding to today’s requirements for web application development, I was recently treated to a lunch by Microsoft, which turned out to be most enjoyable, although when the initial single Microsoft person was joined by three more – plus one from its PR agency – I did start to wonder whether I was being fattened up for the slaughter. I needn’t have worried, though, as the topics of conversation ranged from the future of TV through web application development, and then not unexpectedly to WinFX (now to be known as .NET Framework 3), WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) and XAML (an XML-based language for describing design elements).

One person at the table was an old friend from Macromedia, Jon Harris, who’s been appointed a User Experience evangelist for Microsoft UK. His knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject of user interface design mean he’s always worth listening to: he was one of the instigators of the “Halo” design philosophy at Macromedia. It turns out that several people from Macromedia have ended up working for Microsoft since Macromedia’s takeover by Adobe, which probably explains a lot about the appearance of Microsoft web-development tools such as the Expression range. It seems Microsoft is finally making real efforts to woo the designer community, who’ve traditionally been an Adobe- and Mac-worshipping sect.

One new product that addresses this previously ignored area for Microsoft is Silverlight (see more in Jon Honeyball’s column and Tom Arah’s Digital Design), which uses XAML technology and is already being referred to in many quarters as Microsoft’s Flash killer. Microsoft is keen to point out to anyone who’s prepared to listen that while Silverlight will achieve similar results to Flash, it does so in a completely different fashion and has very different aims. So pull up a chair and I’ll attempt to explain how XAML works and why designers should start looking at it soon.

XAML vs Flash

One of the first questions anyone involved in web application design will ask about any new technology is which browsers and what operating systems will it run on? If it’s limited in this area, its usefulness to the web application builder is equally limited. Previously, such a limitation was something XAML was justifiably accused of, as it would only work via an ActiveX plug-in to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer under Windows. However, now it will work on IE, Firefox, Netscape on both Windows and OS X, and Safari on OS X, while support for Opera and Linux was also recently announced.

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