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Vista to give HD Photo format more exposure

Operating system's launch next week will put Microsoft's own photo format into consumers' hands. Could it be a nail in JPEG's coffin?

Microsoft is looking to supplant the ubiquitous JPEG with an image format of its own--and it's hoping the debut of Windows Vista will help do the job.

In 2006, Microsoft began promoting its own image standard, formerly called Windows Media Photo but renamed HD Photo in November. The company makes no bones about its ambitions: "Our ultimate goal is that it does become the de facto standard people are using for digital photos," said Josh Weisberg, Microsoft's director of digital imaging evangelism.

"HD" doesn't actually stand for "high definition," but it's supposed to connote the better image quality that comes with HD TV. Rico Malvar, a Microsoft Research director who helped develop the format, said that compared with JPEG, HD Photo preserves more subtle details, offers richer colors and takes up half the storage space at the same image quality.

It is tough to get new image formats to catch on, much less to replace prevailing standards, but Microsoft has two strong forces on its side.

First, Microsoft built HD Photo support into Windows Vista, consumer versions of which go on sale Tuesday. That means camera manufacturers increasingly will be able to count on HD Photo support when customers upload their images to a computer, and software such as Web browsers will be able to display and save HD Photo images.

"Clearly, the goal there is to help make it pervasive. If you can use it in Windows, a large percentage of the user base already has access to it," Weisberg said.

Second, Adobe Systems, the most influential image-editing software maker by virtue of its Photoshop products, is helping support HD Photo, said Kevin Connor, Adobe's senior director of product management. Though the "timing didn't work out" to build HD Photo support into Adobe's upcoming CS3 version of Photoshop, Adobe is working with Microsoft on a plug-in with the goal that both Windows and Mac OS X Photoshop users will be able to open and save HD Photo files.

"What's good about HD Photo is that it was designed specifically for digital photography, with a good understanding of how digital photography usage is evolving," Connor said. "It will certainly take time for HD Photo to be as broadly accessible as JPEG--if it ever is quite that broad--but there can be reasons even today why a consumer might prefer to use HD Photo."

'Massive' challenge
Better image format technology doesn't necessarily ensure success. JPEG 2000, like JPEG named after the Joint Photographic Experts Group that produced it, offered better compression quality than JPEG but was a dud. Likewise, the PNG (Portable Network Graphics) format fixed issues with GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), but it hasn't replaced it.

Camera makers have reason to be cautious before they build support into their products.

"JPEG is an industry standard with a variety of quality levels within its architecture," said Sally Smith Clemens, a product manager at Olympus Imaging America. "A replacement format would have to offer very broad support from many developers of both hardware and software to be practical or considered."

A further complication is that the enthusiasts dissatisfied with JPEG and most likely to appreciate HD Photo already are embracing an alternative: the raw image formats that provide detailed, unprocessed data straight off the camera's image sensor. Adobe is trying to standardize the chaotic profusion of raw formats through its Digital Negative (DNG) format.

Replacing JPEG is a massive, massive undertaking...
--Kevin Connor,
senior director
of product management,
Adobe Systems

But probably the biggest obstacle is JPEG's momentum. Even if Microsoft gets HD Photo to catch on, supplanting JPEG is another challenge altogether.

"Replacing JPEG is a massive, massive undertaking, as JPEG really works well for people. JPEG is an open standard that is supported everywhere, on every device and every browser and every workflow," Connor said.

But Eddie Tapp, author of several books on digital-image editing, believes ordinary photographers could be interested in HD Photo. Even the point-and-shoot crowd values image quality, especially when it comes to revisiting older photos, he said.

"The day will come when somebody says, 'That picture you did at Mount Whatever--I want a big copy of that,'" Tapp said. "People look back at images they've done and think, 'I wish I had a higher-resolution camera or better file.'"

Microsoft already has sunk more than six years into developing HD Photo and recognizes it has years of work still to come. "The adoption is going to take some time," Weisberg said.

Winning allies
Microsoft is also trying hard to court business partners for the format. It dropped the "Windows Media Photo" moniker not just because HD Photo is more descriptive, but also because of partners' objections

"Manufacturers of a product that might compete with something to do with Windows...didn't like putting something branded 'Windows' into some of their products," he said. "We don't really care too much for the potential backlash in the industry: 'Here goes Microsoft again with another Windows thing they want us to use.'"

Microsoft also lowered licensing barriers to try to speed adoption. "As you can tell from the license terms, this is not something where we said, 'Let's make billions of dollars off this,'" Weisberg said. The only licensing obligation is to maintain HD Photo image compatibility.

Open-source software also can support HD Photo, Weisberg said, even though Microsoft holds patents for the technology. HD Photo technology is covered by the Open Specification Promise, an agreement under which Microsoft pledges not to assert its patent rights.

"We know we don't live in a world where things don't travel outside our ecosystem. We wanted to make sure anybody who wants to consume or create HD Photo has the ability to do that without any real encumbrance," Weisberg said.

Microsoft has won some support outside the software realm, too. "There are several manufacturers that have begun shipping or who are close to shipping HD Photo-enabled silicon (chips), but that will take time," Weisberg said, a step that's necessary for built-in camera support.

But the format is still a Microsoft standard, not an industry standard governed by a neutral consortium to represent others' interests. That can be a problem--for example, Apple has said it would like Adobe's DNG better if it were an industry standard.

Weisberg, though loquacious on many HD Photo subjects, is conspicuously quiet on the matter of standardization, saying only, "It's something we're always looking at."

HD Photo sales pitch
How exactly is HD Photo better than JPEG? Malvar and Weisberg have a multitude of arguments:

• For each pixel, HD Photo stores at least 16 bits of data for each color, compared with 8 bits with JPEG. That means subtle tonal variations in shadowy or bright areas can be preserved, even through the editing and printing process. And for the cutting-edge crowd, it can store 32 bits per color, useful for combining multiple photos into a "high dynamic range" image that spans the darkest darks to the brightest brights.

• HD Photo's compression algorithm produces images that have twice the quality as JPEG at the same file size or the same quality at half the file size. The algorithm uses simple instructions that can be relatively easily built into cameras' image-processing chips.

• HD Photo builds in smaller "thumbnail" images for quick viewing of files at small sizes. In contrast, a computer operating system must generate JPEG thumbnails.

• The encoding algorithm, set to its highest standard, is "lossless," meaning that it preserves all the image data with no loss of quality. JPEG is "lossy." And although JPEG 2000 has a lossless feature, it requires a separate algorithm and therefore, in the case of camera chips, more circuitry.

• HD Photo uses Microsoft's scRGB color space, which spans a much wider gamut of possible colors than the universally supported but widely derided sRGB scheme. "HD Photo adds support for a higher range of colors, which is becoming more important," Connor said.

And although cameras and computers typically describe colors in RGB terms--varying amounts of red, green and blue--HD Photo also can use CMYK that uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black. That's useful for sending images to printers, which often use CMYK inks.

• The algorithm can decode only a selected portion of the HD Photo image that needs to be displayed, rather than the entire image, which reduces memory requirements and speeds up performance. It can also be encoded chunk by chunk without having to store the entire image in memory.

• HD Photos can be easily rotated in 90-degree increments. JPEG images must be decoded and re-encoded, degrading quality slightly with each change.

•  HD Photo images can be gargantuan--262 million pixels on an edge, or 68.6 terapixels total, as long as the compressed image doesn't exceed 32GB in size.

Microsoft knows it will need a strong pitch to spread HD Photo beyond Windows and into the entire digital photo world.

"The camera manufacturers will think, 'If I produce an image, will the neighborhood drugstore print it? Otherwise I'll keep JPEG,'" Malvar said. "We would like such a transition to happen, but we are realistic that it may take some time until the whole ecosystem is in place."

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