October 4, 2004 3:45 PM PDT

Xamlon looks to beat Microsoft to the punch

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Software engineer and entrepreneur Paul Colton thinks he can beat Microsoft by taking a page from its playbook--literally.

On Monday, Colton's company Xamlon released its first product, a software development kit designed to speed development of user interface software for Web applications. Xamlon built the program from the published technical specifications of Microsoft's own user interface development software, which Microsoft itself doesn't plan to release until 2006.

Colton, Xamlon's CEO, had the idea to start the firm last November, after Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference, at which Microsoft released a flood of technical information about the forthcoming Longhorn release of Windows and related software development technologies. Using the published blueprints for Avalon--the overall name for Microsoft's user interface software due with the delivery of Longhorn in two years--Colton set out to create today what Microsoft intended to do in a few years.

"We're a subset of Avalon, the parts that people need today," said Colton. "It's an Avalon-light clone."

With Avalon, Microsoft aims to dramatically simplify the process of building the front end portion of Web applications. The software giant has created the eXtensible Application Markup Language (XAML), which allows developers to create a Web page's layout using tags, rather than programming code.

Through the available information on XAML, Xamlon was able to create tools that generate XAML. Using XAML, developers will be able to eliminate about 75 percent of the code, and improve the performance of Web-based Windows applications, and make it easier to modify applications once they're written, according to Xamlon executives.

Colton's product strategy recalls the strategy at his last company, Live Software, which he sold to Allaire, which was bought by Macromedia. Live Software's Java server software was built in the late 1990s from a publicly available specification for Java application servers, he said.

The initial product from Xamlon, called Xamlon Professional 1.0, includes an add-in to Microsoft's Visual Studio.Net 2003 development tool as well as a "run-time engine," the software needed to run applications written with the Xamlon tool. The run-time is about 600 kilobytes and can be downloaded from a Web site automatically.

Using Xamlon's tool, developers can make use of some of the slicker graphics Microsoft has planned with Avalon, including vector-based graphics and three-dimensional objects. Microsoft's XAML also simplifies user interface development enough that a graphics designer could use Xamlon's tool, Colton said.

XAML was designed intentionally to tie Microsoft's browser closer to Windows. As such, applications written with Xamlon's tool will only run on Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser on Windows. But the company is considering ways to make its software work with other operating systems, Colton said.

Xamlon could make user interface tools for the Macintosh or Linux by using Mono, a version of portions of Microsoft's .Net software plumbing. Mono allows applications written with Microsoft .Net tools to run on other operating systems. Xamlon is also looking at giving Java programmers access to its tools, Colton said.

Microsoft plans to include the Avalon software with Longhorn in 2006 and offer it as an option for people running Windows XP. Xamlon said its software runs on older Windows systems as well, such as Windows 2000 and Windows 98.

Once Microsoft ships Avalon, Xamlon expects to shift its focus to development tools and away from the "engine" to run XAML applications, Colton said.

Developers pay $399 for Xamlon Professional 1.0, which includes a sample application, software to converter Adobe Illustrator graphics into XAML code, and a one-year subscription to updates. The updates will be important because Microsoft is still developing Avalon, and Xamlon will need to stay abreast of changes.

"Our job as a company is to track Microsoft and to make sure that we stay compatible," Colton said.


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