Ric Holland's Blog

LEON BROWN interview

Product Manager – Microsoft Expression Suite










Ric         Welcome Leon to the Art of Making Marks.  Just to open the interview I’d like you to introduce yourself and tell us a little about who you are and what you do.

Leon        Sure my name’s Leon Brown, I work for Microsoft Corporation.  Right now in my current role I’m living in Singapore and I manage the East Pacific business for our Special Products.  Prior to joining Microsoft I spent eight years at Adobe Systems where I was a Senior Product Manager on the Illustrator product line and the Creative Suite product. Prior to that I spent about eight years out in Japan as a professional audio video engineer and part time entrepreneur with a couple of import businesses.

Ric          Well now I guess what I really wanted to ask you about is around the whole Expression Suite product line.  Basically how it all happened and you’re positioning of the product in the market and of course at some point maybe the relevance with our graphic tablets.

Leon       Yes absolutely.  So I’ll tell you my opinion and also introduce you to Doug Olsen who is a good person to talk to also as he has been involved from the beginning of this project.  I joined Microsoft and the Expression team because I thought there was a real goal within the team to do something different.  It was the challenge of ‘if you could start from ground zero and create a set of products for creative professionals specifically those for building user interfaces and rich applications for the web and if you could start from day one, what would you want to build and what are the sorts of challenges and problems you’d want to solve?’ The Expression products really came from that sort of background. 

               So one of the biggest issues that I saw when I was working at Adobe and which I think is prevalent today is really somewhat of an inability for the content that you create to go directly into the backend tools on the developer side of things.  Traditional application development was always based on quickly cutting and pasting stuff into applications and then you have to re-worked it, it was sort of this big long headache and a lot of work flow issues there.  What applications like Blend tried to solve was to say ‘look we can have interface designers, researches and production people potentially scope things out, mock them up with actual interfaces and then those pieces of code will actually stay live and useable for developers to hook up to. It’s that sort of idea of how do we solve this problem that we have seen for about 10 years in the industry and how do we solve them today if we get to start from scratch.  So that was the whole point of joining the expression team for me in the idea that there was a bunch of people trying to solve those types of issues, and not only that one but those types of issues in general, from ground zero and that was inspiring.

Ric          Fantastic. So how’s it all going, how’s the market acceptance been so far?

Leon       So far it’s good. The funny thing when I talk to people or when somebody from Microsoft walks in the door to talk about designers and design tools, most often than not people think it’s like having a Martian arrive or somebody arriving from another planet.  And so usually when you can get past that first hurdle and let people know what we’re working on, they’re really accepting about having us come in and explain what we’re doing.  So we’re making progress, we’re getting the word out to people about what the products can do and what the technology can do and people are really excited about that and I think that’s really good.  At the end of the day we’re still building up the business so there is still a lot of people who don’t know what we’re doing but we’re certainly making progress.  We’ve only been at it for not even a year yet since we released our first product so we’ve got a ways to go.

Ric          So now with Silver Light, where does that fit into the product suite?

Leon       Silver Light, I’m sure you’re familiar with is a run-time on the browser that displays video and audio, provides some really great codecs for doing video and also eventually will evolve into a full rich internet application run-time.  It fits, not really into the products suite but more as a technology suite.  So if you think about when you’re creating applications you might want to deploy them in different ways.  You might want to deploy something that’s fully on the desktop, something that’s maybe… a corporate website or a business application and it maybe a very rich application and you need to access an internal database and things like that.  Or you may want to do something fully on the other side that’s completely ubiquitous that you know only needs to run in the browser and only makes use of HTML and Ajax. Silver Light sits in the middle of that and gives you a much richer run-time platform to build applications that take advantage of the ubiquity of the web and a lot more ability to produce quite rich content and immersive user experiences.  Similar to trends you see in a lot of the Flash application development but different from Flash in that it is built more from the ground up to be an application programming platform going forward in the next release rather than an animation program that’s evolved. 

Ric          So it really does sound like you’ve got a complete new platform which is able to be evolved without all the legacies that maybe some of the other competing technologies have had to grapple with.

Leon        Oh yeah.  There’s a lot of good feedback so everybody, even internally, is just waiting for us to get to the point where we can finally ship it and let people actually create stuff live, because it looks like a lot of fun.

Ric         I just want to focus in on the Expression Design application for a minute and get you to talk about the legacy features remaining or not. I remember back to a previous life I had working at MetaCreations Corporation where I had exposure to the Creature House version of Expression Design and previous to that the Fractal Design version.  In those days, as a designer I was very excited to come across a Vector tool that supported pen pressure sensitivity as it was something new in those days.  I noticed in the pre-release version of Expression Design it was still capable of dealing with Rasta (bitmap) and Vector data on concurrent layers but then I was a little disappointed to see that capability had been taken out of the product in the final shipped version 1.1.  Can you comment on why that might have occurred and will we see some of those features come back into the product?

Leon        Well I can comment on why we are where we are today.  In coming up with the product suite that we’ve delivered first our goal was to develop applications for creating great user experiences for both the web and for the Windows platforms.  The first thing that was really critical to us was the Vector drawing capabilities.  What we ended up doing was to take the Creature House product and strip out all the things that weren’t going to be used to achieve that goal. The application had to be fairly bug free, solid and stable and did all those good things that you would expect.  So we removed a lot of the stuff to make sure that we could meet that goal first.  So that’s how we got to where we are so far.

               Where we’re going next, we really haven’t made a lot of final decisions on.  We do recognise that we’d like to have some of the Rasta capabilities back, whether they show up in the design product or if they’re heading in the same way as you mentioned to be on different layers or even to combine the data on one layers. Where this is all going is decided after a lot of secession that are going on internally at Microsoft so I don’t have any final answers for that yet. We do recognise that a lot of people were disappointed, who initially owned the product that we removed some of the features though we think we did it for the right reasons in order to tighten up the product for the first release.

Ric         Now just to talk a little bit around the Flash Player for a minute and where you might be going with Silver Light.  One thing I’ve tried to evangelise within Adobe where ever possible is the concept of supporting pen pressure sensitivity from within the Flash Player itself so that browser based games and applications can be built to support pen input user interaction. Do you know if Silver Light is supporting pen pressure sensitivity at this stage?

Leon        No I actually don’t know and unfortunately you’ll get this answer a lot from me. We really don’t talk about what we’re releasing in future versions of the product just because there’s so much churn going on internally at Microsoft.  But just so you know this type of discussion has come up internally and people are looking at a lot of different ways that the player could interact with stuff and the good thing about Microsoft is that we do have people who know a lot about tablets and pen pressure sensitivity and I’m sure you’re already well aware about our Tablet PCs and what they can do. 

              I know that Wacom has worked with us in the past in helping Microsoft understand the best way to utilise pen tablets and work with those user bases. We have very good collaboration with Wacom in this area.  So there’s a lot of people internally who know a lot about this stuff, but again it’s more about staging and timing.  You’ve got to walk before you can run and we’re sort of still in the walking stage as we get things out the door.  So a lot of good ideas are happening, we’re making sure that the platform is good for a lot of different audiences, those that want to play games, those who are running audio and video on their machines and those who are producing full scale robust client applications online.  So a lot of good things are happening it’s just a matter of staging and timing to get them in the market.  I’m sure you guys deal with it at Wacom too, there’s probably a tonne of great ideas and just a limited amount of bandwidth to get them all out the door.

Ric         Oh yeah in a lot of cases it’s just about being able to quickly implement opportunities around other people’s technologies.  We sit in the middle of a whole lot of exciting stuff. Just the other day I was talking to a Zbrush user who wants the ability to rotation the 3D sculpting tool. It’s probably easily done but at this stage not actually implemented and so it’s probably of up to us to say to Pixologic ‘hey wouldn’t it be cool to add this function to your sculpting tool to take advantage of our Artist Brush accessory pen.’

Leon      But I think it’s fair to say that Wacom does a little bit more than just sit on the side and ask people to make technological enhancements.  Really the whole idea of the tablet and the pen from Wacom is to really enable people to have a new way of interacting with software, right.

Ric         Oh yes of course I could have said it better.

Leon      Yet at the end of the day I’ve always see Wacom as our partner in the way that we try to understand our customers and their ability to better interface with software, to have better experience when creating and their designs and artwork, whether it be just flat 2 D or 3D or any of the spaces.  So I think Wacom’s longevity in the digital industry has been less about their perpetual nagging of all the companies but really more about your focus on trying to make sure that you just have a better experience with working with their PCs.

Ric         That’s right and we’re very much enjoying the relationship with Microsoft around the new operating system Vista. I’ve seen the light bulb go on for many customers when they realize how they can have a much better user experience in their day to day digital life, taking advantage of pen input.  And so Wacom’s whole mantra now is to say to it’s customers be more expressive and have a more enjoyable experience with the technology that you’re using everyday.

Leon      Vista’s a great example of where we put in not only a lot of effort in getting it right for the consumer but also did a lot of underpinning of the technology that allows companies, like Wacom and our customers and partners to really build out very compelling types of applications and experiences.  That’s really what Microsoft is trying to focus on. At the end of the day our customers are having fun experiences, good experiences, you know things that make them more productive and exciting, whether in business or in the consumer market, and so it’s a good match.

Ric         It’s very exciting to see some of the visionary material that’s coming out around the touch ‘Surface Technologies’.  I say the Microsoft presentation for the medical markets. A visionary look at how Surface Technologies and various other technologies put together could create a very meaningful experience for the customer.  And I was just wondering have you got anything that you’d like to comment on some of those innovations that are going on in Microsoft?

Leon        I’ll be honest, my depth of knowledge on the Surface stuff is pretty low.  I’ve seen probably the same examples that you have.  I haven’t seen the medical one specifically but I’ve always kept my eye on areas where I think the innovation Microsoft has done real well for user experience. Such as areas like the medical market and tablet based input.  Most of the practitioners in the medical field who are out there meeting with their patients are much more familiar with quickly jotting things down or circling things on diagrams and working on charts and so just seeing the ongoing evolution of the way people are using Tablet PCs and pen technologies in vertical situations, I think those things are all really interesting technologies albeit I think the Surface project from Microsoft again is a great use of technology. To allow people to interact with basically things in the digital environment in a way that’s really natural with touch based interfaces. For me those are the things that are always surprising to find out about. Microsoft is so big and so huge and you’re kind of wondering what we’re all doing, but there’s just so much innovation and stuff going on it’s hard to get across.  So it’s fun, a lot of new things.

Ric         It’s been fun for me also just traversing globally within the Wacom corridors to see how we’re positioning ourselves to deliver on some of those concepts. Touch and Point on screen is going to be an exciting marriage moving forward.

Leon        I think Wacom’s aiming at the right thing as we’re seeing the types of presentation surfaces get larger, we’re seeing not only just the flexibility of Digital Paper but the dynamics of large full screen walls and Surface tables. All these things are changing the way we use technology. Something Wacom has spent their entire career on.

Ric        Yes twenty-five years now.

Leon        Yes, 25 years working on solving ‘how do people interact with technology?’ that’s a little different than just typing on a keyboard!  So definitely it’s the right place for you guys to partner with Microsoft.  Hopefully you’re finding it’s an easy platform for you guys to develop on and experiment because we thought we did the right things.

Ric       Just still waiting for market share to arrive on Vista and for your customers to become familiar with Tablet PC interaction.  It’s often still quite a revelation for many people to learn that they can have a Tablet PC experience without having an actual Tablet PC.  Just plug in a Bamboo.

Leon        Oh absolutely.  Absolutely, absolutely. I gave away all my tablets before I came out to Singapore and now I’ve got a four year old daughter who uses the computer a lot. I’m trying to talk my wife into letting me buy a new tablet so I can get her drawing with it, so we’re working on it.

Ric         I would really like to show you our new Cintiq 12WX which is a very new product.  It’s quite an exciting step forward in tablets.  It basically looks very similar to one of our Intuos3 products with all the same levels of pressure sensitivity and functionality but with a screen imbedded into the tablet.

Leon         It’s not that big 21 inch giant.

Ric        The Cintiq 21UX, no this is it’s little brother.  It’s very light and versatile and we hope it will open up some interesting new market opportunities. Not just for the creative graphics guys, but in medicine and all sorts of areas where the intuitive nature of being able to work directly on the screen is a major plus

Leon        I’m a big fan of direct manipulation of your data on screen, so definitely the right way to be looking for it.

Ric        Well Leon thank you very much for this interview.  It’s been a great pleasure to have you on the Art of Making Marks.

Leon         Was my pleasure.