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Microsoft releases final version of HD Photo plug-in for Photoshop

Microsoft's attempt to advance its image file format takes a step forward with Photoshop support. Next up: getting people to actually use it.

Update: I clarified the caption of the illustration to better indicate what editing had gone on to produce the side-by-side images.

Microsoft has taken the beta tag off a plug-in to let Photoshop read and write files in the HD Photo format, which Microsoft is standardizing as JPEG XR.

The free plug-in is available for download for Windows and Mac OS X systems. The plug-ins work on Windows XP and Vista, Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5, and Photoshop CS2 or CS3, Bill Crow, who's overseen the HD Photo and JPEG XR effort, wrote on his blog Thursday.

These two images both are edited versions of overexposed originals. After editing, the overexposed JPEG version on the left looks murky. The right picture, originally encoded and then edited as an HD Photo, has more dynamic range, so detail in the highlights can be recovered better. It's shown here converted back into regular JPEG after the editing process. Microsoft/Bill Crow

Microsoft hopes HD Photo eventually will replace the ubiquitous JPEG standard overseen by the Joint Photographic Experts Group. Among the HD Photo advantages that Microsoft touts: it offers more efficient compression, richer color and a much wider dynamic range; it can optionally store images without data loss from compression; it's free of royalty and licensing constraints; and it can run in camera hardware. Support for the file format, initially called Windows Media Photo, is built into Windows Vista.

HD Photo also can be used to show images online at different resolutions, transmitting only the portion of the image that's shown on the screen. That's useful for zooming in to a high-resolution photo without having to download a vast image, a technology Microsoft uses in its HD View software for viewing detailed images online. One organization using HD View is Xrez.

However, Microsoft faces significant challenges in encouraging adoption of the technology. Building it into Vista is a big step, and an endorsement from Photoshop publisher Adobe Systems helps, but JPEG is deeply entrenched. Standardization through JPEG could encourage industry players to adopt the standard--in particular those who are leery of Microsoft's power.

But there are plenty of standards that never catch on. What could really tip the balance in favor of HD Photo/JPEG XR is if it gets built into cameras directly so photographers can start using it from the outset.

The final version of the plug-in, developed in part by Pegasus Imaging Systems, looks mostly like recent betas, Crow said.

"All the changes we've made since the last beta are under the covers, fixing a couple minor bugs, addressing several theoretical security vulnerabilities and generally bringing the code up to current Microsoft standards for released software," he said. "Don't forget that the beta versions will expire on December 31st, so you should definitely download and install these new released versions."