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Longhorn photo support comes into focus

Microsoft is rallying industry support for "raw" digital photo formats which it says could ease picture editing and boost image quality.

The next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will feature support for uncompressed digital camera images--which could change the way people view and edit photos.

The company on Wednesday announced deals with camera companies Nikon and Canon, as well as Fuji Photo Film and Adobe Systems, to let Windows users view, print and eventually edit uncompressed digital camera images--which are stored in what's commonly known as a "raw" format.

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Sometimes called a digital negative, raw files are pre-pixelized data that comes directly off of a camera's charge-coupled device, or CCD--one of two main image sensors in digital cameras. Eventually, raw files get converted to more common file formats, like JPEG, GIF and TIFF.

Most professional photographers prefer using raw image capture because it offers the highest quality and the greatest creative control. For example, raw data contains more tonal information, and exposure and color can be tweaked after the image has been captured. Microsoft's internal research found that 15 percent of all digital photography users surveyed have tapped into raw files.

But the problem, according to Microsoft, is that most camera manufacturers use proprietary file formats to store the raw data from their digital cameras, and every new camera that comes on the market introduces changes to raw image files.

Josh Weisberg, a group product manager with Windows Digital Media, says users are then cornered into either using the camera maker's editing software or off-the-shelf conversion software like Adobe's Photoshop.

"In some cases, like with Nikon, customers are charged for it," Weisberg said. "The other problem is that you have a proprietary format such as Adobe's DNG (Digital Negative) standardized raw format that can't be read without specialized formatted software."

So, Weisberg said, Microsoft is working with Nikon, Adobe, Canon, Fuji and a handful of other unspecified digital imaging companies to develop the raw architecture for use in Longhorn.

Weisberg also said Microsoft will help its software partners standardize the raw architecture for image codecs, let them contribute their own codecs, and certify them for inclusion in Longhorn.

Microsoft is also offering a new application programming interface, or API, so its partners can add more control options to supported software products.

But well before the launch of Longhorn, expected in the second half of 2006, Microsoft is expected to roll out Raw Image Thumbnailer--a free download of an updated version of its PowerToys for Windows XP.

Weisberg said Windows users will be able to view, preview and print raw data, but not edit it. The download will be ready in a few weeks, he said.

As for its long-term strategy, Microsoft said it will use its new raw-image capabilities to augment a future version of its Microsoft Digital Image Suite. The imaging and editing tool competes directly with Adobe's Photoshop Elements but is not expected until long after Longhorn has been released.

The outlook for digital photography shows no signs of slowing down. Analysts with market research company IDC even estimate the pricier are dropping in price. The company estimates increased demand for digital SLR cameras to achieve an average annual growth rate of 12 percent between 2005 and 2009.

However, it doesn't look like everybody will be invited to Microsoft's raw party.

Sony, which makes the image sensors used in most digital cameras, and Kodak, which got into a tiff over photo support in XP, were not mentioned by Weisberg as participants in Microsoft's raw architecture conversion for Longhorn.

Another group not expected to participate in Microsoft's public education efforts about the raw architecture is the OpenRAW group. The grassroots consortium wants camera manufacturers to publicly document all of their raw image file formats: past, present and future.

If that were to happen, the OpenRAW group says, photographers would have the largest set of processing choices and a lock on future image decoding. Unfortunately, the group's wishes would mean camera makers would reveal decades of closely guarded trade secrets, something Microsoft and its partners seem unlikely to do.