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.

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