Microsoft unveiled a suite of web design and graphics software today similar to those that have been available for years from Adobe and Macromedia.

Eric Rudder, senior vice president of the Server and Tools division for Microsoft, showed a pre-release version of the suite, called Expression, in his keynote speech at PDC (Professional Developers Conference) in Los Angeles.

Expression features Sparkle Interactive Designer, a tool for building 3D animation and graphics, Acrylic Graphic Designer, a painting and illustration tool, and Quartz Web Designer, a layout and design tool for building websites. All of the current names for the individual tools are Microsoft code names.

Microsoft Expression is available now as a CTP (Community Technology Preview), and the suite is expected to ship in 2006. Microsoft plans to make several more CTPs available before a full production version is released.

While Expression gives designers an alternative to using tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash and Macromedia Dreamweaver, it's not likely they will begin migrating in droves from those tools to Microsoft Expression anytime soon, said one analyst attending the PDC.

Macromedia's tools are most widely used on Apple machines, which is still the platform of choice for graphics and web designers, said Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst for research company Zapthink.

"Macromedia and Adobe aren't that threatened because they have a Macintosh installed base," he said. "Most designers prefer the Macintosh [as a platform], and I don't see Microsoft offering Expression for the Mac anytime soon."

Instead, Microsoft Expression fills in a gap in Microsoft's own tools portfolio, he said. Microsoft has not previously had a compelling set of tools for graphics designers, so developers building applications for its .NET platform will now have design tools that are closely integrated with Visual Studio, Microsoft's core tool set for building .NET applications.

In fact, by using Expression in conjunction with Visual Studio, developers writing server code can work more seamlessly with designers to create rich user interfaces for .NET applications, Rudder said. Microsoft developers demonstrated this functionality during Rudder's keynote this morning.

This kind of capability is similar to what Macromedia offers to Java developers with its Flex tool, which enables programmers writing server-side Java code to work with GUI (graphical user interface) designers to create rich internet applications, according to Macromedia.

Macromedia recently released Studio 8.0, a suite of its core design and development tools, including Dreamweaver, Flash Professional and Fireworks.

"We continue to watch all competitive and complementary technologies very closely, including this one," Jim Guerard, vice president of product management and product marketing for Macromedia, said today of Microsoft Expression.

Adobe is currently in the process of acquiring Macromedia, a deal that was approved by shareholders but is still awaiting regulatory approval.