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Microsoft hopes new photo tool will boost Windows

A free new utility, Pro Photo Tools, is designed to help photographers add location data to their photos--and to help Microsoft tout Windows.

Microsoft likes digital photography enthusiasts as customers, and on Thursday plans to release a free new utility designed to keep them wedded to Windows.

Pro Photo Tools is geared for photography professionals and enthusiasts, and its first notable feature is the ability to geotag photos, or add geographic information showing where the picture was taken. Geotagging is an onerous chore with today's technology, but camera makers are working to build it into cameras, and it can pay off down the road.

Microsoft's Pro Photo Tools lets photographers geotag their photos and show where they are on a map.
Microsoft's Pro Photo Tools lets photographers geotag their photos and show where they are on a map. Stephen Shankland/CNET Networks

That's because geotagging, done well, enables people to find photos by searching for the word "Paris" rather than sifting through folders with obscure filenames like IMG_5829.jpg or squinting at hundreds of image thumbnails. Until the still-distant day when computers can recognize your Aunt Polly or the Grand Canyon, geotagging holds potential as a way for people to get a handle on ever-growing digital photo collections.

"People are doing a lot more geotagging, but it's still somewhat cumbersome," said Josh Weisberg, Microsoft's director of digital imaging evangelism. "We want to make it mainstream."

Geotagging is just the opening salvo, though. Pro Photo Tools can be extended with new features; Microsoft is working on some and is considering whether to allow other companies also join in, Weisberg said.

"We've talked about making it extensible to third parties, but...It's a big question. I haven't decided yet whether we're going to do it," Weisberg said.

Looking at the digital photography software market, it's easy to imagine Adobe Systems is a competitor. But it looks to me like this is actually positioned more against Apple whose computers are popular among "creative professionals" and come with iPhoto editing software.

Weisberg shied away from competitive analysis, but agreed that Pro Photo Tools is designed to help make Windows more compelling. "It's focused on making the platform better for photographers," Weisberg said.

He also views Pro Photo Tools as a strong statement about what Microsoft can accomplish by building off its existing Windows infrastructure. "One hundred days ago, I wrote a memo," launching the project. "One hundred days later, we have a product. That's not typical Microsoft."

Pro Photo Tools' origin
The software is an outgrowth of the Microsoft Photo Info software the company released in 2007 to help photographers label some images with metadata such as copyright notices, captions, and titles, but it's expanded considerably.

The software can process data from a handheld GPS unit that shows where a photographer roamed, adding the latitude and longitude data to photos depending on when they were taken. That's how existing geotagging software typically works, but Pro Photo Tools has some more distinguishing features, too.

For one thing, it also lets photographers assign locations to photos by placing pushpins on an online map. For another, it adds rough geographic coordinates based just on a region name, such as "Boston." It can work with many of the proprietary "raw" image formats that higher-end digital cameras produce. And perhaps most significant, it uses Microsoft's Windows Live Local interface to add text fields such as region, city, and street to the photo.

I tried a pre-production version of the software and found it rough around the edges but a refreshingly thorough attempt to tackle the geotagging challenge.

One of my favorite features is a slider that let me correct for discrepancies between the camera time and my GPS unit's time.

Pro Photo Tools has a slider that lets people correct mismatches between the time recorded by a camera and GPS unit. Thumbnails of images pop up that can be matched with actual locations.
Pro Photo Tools has a slider that lets people correct mismatches between the time recorded by a camera and GPS unit. Thumbnails of images pop up that can be matched with actual locations. Microsoft

I had some problems on Windows XP with the software showing being unable to show larger versions of the photos and some other problems writing geodata to Canon's CR2 raw files. Weisberg said both problems have been fixed, and it worked fine with Nikon's NEF format.

To run the software on Windows XP, users must have installed the Windows Imaging Component, the image-handling engine built for Vista but also available for Windows XP. WIC is likely to become more mainstream soon on XP: it's built into Service Pack 3.

One nice feature of WIC is that raw-image processing engines called codecs can be plugged in. Unlike Adobe and Apple, Microsoft relies on camera makers to supply the codecs for their formats. That means the company is wedded to them for support, but the major manufacturers all have released codecs, and relying on the manufacturer means Microsoft doesn't have to worry as much that writing data to raw files will corrupt them.

One annoyance for me was the lack of a free codec to handle Adobe's Digital Negative (DNG) format. A company called ArdFry Imaging offers one for $29.95, but that seemed like a lot to pay for a plug-in for a free tool.

Happily, Adobe plans to fill in the DNG codec gap.

"We'll be releasing a DNG codec shortly," said Lightroom leader Tom Hogarty in an e-mail. That will help out other Microsoft software such as Windows Photo Gallery that uses WIC to show image thumbnails and print photos.

One shortcoming, though, comes with Sony's codec, which doesn't let people write metadata such as keywords or geotags to its raw files.

Pro Photo Tools' future
Weisberg wouldn't detail much about what new modules are next for Pro Photo Tools beyond a few smaller features such as batch renaming to let photographers rename photos in bulk or a "painter" tool to let location tags or other metadata quickly be copied from one image and pasted to another.

But new features are en route. Microsoft plans another announcement at the Photokina show in September in Germany.

Microsoft wants Pro Photo Tools to be a work in progress--a frequently updated utility that evolves rapidly. "It's the evolving software model," Weisberg said.

What does the software portend for its overall digital imaging strategy? Weisberg is cagey, and given that Microsoft axed its Digital Image Suite product a year after it acquired iView Multimedia and its software to manage digital photos and other digital files, reading the tea leaves can be difficult.

Microsoft doesn't see Pro Photo Tools as competing either with the Expression Media product from iView Multimedia or with Microsoft's basic browsing and editing software, the Windows Photo Gallery package built into Vista or its more elaborate alternative, Windows Live Photo Gallery.

"Photo Gallery is focused on the consumer experience. We're looking at things more interesting to prosumers that would be complementary to Photo Gallery," Weisberg said. "We're also looking at Expression Media on the high end and walking a fine line between the two.