Microsoft tries to improve Vista photo features

Redmond sees Windows Vista as a big step up over XP for photographers, but it's adding more image-management options through Windows Live Photo Gallery.

Updated: Microsoft now says image uploads to non-Microsoft photo sites will be possible.

BURLINGAME, Calif.--Microsoft developed Windows Vista in part to make it easier for people to manage their digital photos. Now it has released beta software that's trying to refine that experience further.

Windows XP leaves much to be desired with photo management, Mike Nash, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Windows Product Management, said Wednesday in a talk here at the InfoTrends Digital Imaging conference. On the list of gripes: XP lacks abilities to edit, archive, search, tag and edit images; it can't support the higher-end but unprocessed "raw" photos; transferring images to PCs is "slow and cumbersome"; and "color management was sketchy at best."

Windows Vista is designed to fix these shortcomings, Nash said. But newer software called Windows Live, in public beta testing since earlier this month, is geared to expand photo abilities even more--in part through improving what the PC can do on its own and in part what it can do with the Internet.

"The notion of live services is a critical part of Microsoft's strategy," Nash said. "Our mindset is that the value proposition of Windows Vista is a combination of the core operating system and those online services."

Of course, XP isn't the only comparison to Vista that can be made. Apple's Mac OS X includes many photo-friendly features already.

Dave Block, Windows senior product manager, demonstrated the photo-related components of the Windows Live software. Windows Live Photo Gallery augments Windows Vista Photo Gallery with the ability to sharpen images and to view a histogram that shows an image's distribution of light and dark tones.

The software also adds the ability to upload photos with two mouse clicks to Windows Live Spaces, an online site for blogging and sharing photos. Eventually, Microsoft plans to "expand publishing options for Windows Live Photo Gallery to other sites in the future," so those who use services such as Flickr or Shutterfly need not despair.

Windows Live Gallery, part of a suite that includes other components for blogging, mail and other tasks, takes over from the Vista Photo Gallery when installed, Block said in an interview.

Microsoft may not think as much about photo handling with Windows XP, but there's one feature from the earlier operating system that Microsoft is adding back into Vista as a result of customer feedback. In XP, the photo-import process let people select which photos they wanted to transfer to the PC and which photos they wanted to delete or leave on a camera. With Vista, it's an all-or-nothing affair.

"A goal with Vista was to make photo import really simple. But we got feedback that people wanted it to be more highly functional," Block said.

Windows Live Photo Gallery shouldn't be thought of as what Vista's photo management ought to have been, Block argued. "It's adding new features. Don't think of it as a patch," he said.

During the photo import process, on either the standard and augmented Vista, people can tag their images with labels such as photo locations and subject names. Adding such "metadata" is a crucial part to enabling software and therefore computer users to search for particular photos.

Vista simplifies some of the divergent standards for photo metadata, said InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee. There are still problems, however.

For example, image-editing powerhouse Adobe Systems also offers software that lets people tag photos and rate them on a scale of one to five stars. Adobe and Microsoft software can read the primary photo tags the other company's software has written. But the companies take an incompatible approach for subtags that provide more elaborate detail. A "flower" primary tag could be expanded by adding a "rose" subtag, for example.

"There's no agreed upon industry standard," Block said. "Both implementations are good; they're just not compatible."

He didn't have a projection for when the companies might work out their subtagging differences.

The Windows Live beta software can be downloaded from Microsoft. It's available for Windows XP and Vista, but it requires the installation of other components for search and color management for XP, and of SQL 2005 Compact Edition for both operating systems.