Microsoft: Make our HD Photo format a standard

Software giant would turn over its image tech to a standards group in a bid to displace today's reigning JPEG format.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
If you love something, set it free.

Such is the reasoning behind a step Microsoft plans to announce Thursday: it will submit its HD Photo image format to a standards body. Making HD Photos a neutral industry standard, not just a Microsoft technology, is a significant step in the company's ambitious plan to establish a higher-quality replacement for today's ubiquitous JPEG standard.

"Microsoft...intends to standardize the technology and will be submitting HD Photo to an appropriate standards organization shortly," the company said in a statement. The company plans to announce the move Thursday at the Photo Marketing Association trade show in Las Vegas.

The standardization move makes sense, given Microsoft's ambitions, said InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee. "If Microsoft is looking for wider adoption of the format, it needs to be divorced from Microsoft itself," he said. "They're going to have to loosen the strings on it."

The company prizes its intellectual property as the foundation for its business. So what might Microsoft get by giving away technology? In short, an influential place at the heart of consumers' digital photography world.

"The companies that can help consumers manage and access photos ultimately will have a significant say in how those images are monetized in the future," for example, by connecting to services for photo sharing, editing and printing, Lee said. "The more Microsoft can be ingrained into the workflow process, the better their future is going to look."

Microsoft isn't commenting on its motives, but the standardization move follows earlier lowering of barriers.

In November, it liberalized the licensing policy--dropping fees, for example. At that time, it adopted the neutral HD Photo name instead of the Microsoft-centric Windows Media Photo, though Windows Vista uses the older name. And the company has said HD Photo technology is covered by the Open Specification Promise, an agreement under which Microsoft pledges not to assert its patent rights, which makes it more palatable to potential rivals--in particular open-source programmers.

Standards bodies can be a mixed blessing for technology companies. On the one hand, they can build broad industry support for a technology, enabling different companies' products to work better together. Ideally, standards rise above a particular company's agenda to reflect the needs and experience of several companies.

On the other hand, the consortia that create and approve standards are notoriously sluggish, especially when compared to the fast-moving computer industry, as Josh Weisberg, Microsoft's director of digital imaging evangelism, observed in January. And standards efforts aren't immune to competitive jockeying: Microsoft has faced obstacles trying to standardize its OOXML office document file formats.

Microsoft has put years of research into HD Photo and knows it has years more work to create a JPEG alternative, much less replacement. The company knows it has to woo partners from every corner of the industry, including camera makers and those who build photo printing kiosks.

"We know for it to be successful there has to be whole ecosystem," Rico Malvar, a Microsoft Research director who helped develop the format, said Tuesday at a meeting with reporters in Seattle.

But Microsoft is in a unique position to be able to create that ecosystem, Malvar argued. "When we see a need we go ahead and do it. We understand what it takes to work on a technology and make it into a real product," he said.

Standards can be easier to embrace. "In general, the spirit of the standardization effort is very helpful and useful," said Suresh Venkatraman, director of digital camera work at Micron, which manufactures image sensors and processing chips.

And there's a place for a JPEG successor, he added, though stopping short of endorsing HD Photo.

"From the sensor viewpoint, we're looking at how to get a larger color range. Translating that into a file format is something where there's room for improvement," Venkatraman said.

A broader color gamut is indeed one of the advantages Microsoft touts for HD Photo. ("HD" doesn't actually stand for anything, but the company hopes it will connote the "high definition" advantages of HDTV.) Among other HD Photo features:

• It can store 16 or 32 bits of data for each color, compared with JPEG's 8 bits, making it easier to discern shadow details or the subtle tonal variations of snow in sunlight.

• It compresses data twice as efficiently as JPEG, with either twice the quality at a given file size or half the file size at a given quality.

• It's designed to work well in camera image-processing chips, and to reduce memory requirements, it encodes images chunk by chunk without having to store the complete image at one time.

Microsoft has built support for the newer format into Windows Vista and has won an ally in influential graphics company Adobe Systems. At the same time, though, many of the photographers most likely to appreciate HD Photo's advantages already are shooting using "raw" data taken directly from the camera image sensors. Adobe is trying to replace myriad raw formats with its own Digital Negative specification, though it hasn't said whether it will seek to formally standardize that technology.

Overall, Microsoft's HD Photo journey has just begun.

"You're still probably talking at least a couple years before you get some form of critical mass," Lee said, and displacing JPEG is another challenge beyond that. "They're just at the very, very beginning."

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.

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