Microsoft's alternative to the ubiquitous JPEG image format could soon become a standard, a major step in the company's ambitions to spread the technology and boost its Vista operating system.
In coming months, 16 national standards groups will formally vote on whether the Joint Photographic Experts Group, after which the JPEG file format is named, should make Microsoft's relatively new HD Photo format a standard. Getting to this stage is a good sign in Microsoft's view, and the company has hopes the format will be accepted as a standard called JPEG XR by mid-2008, said Robert Rossi, principal program manager at Microsoft for emerging image and video technology.
"The fact that this happened is a very strong endorsement. It's very rare for this to be reversed in the formalities that happen between now and October," Rossi said. Microsoft already had declared its standardization intent, but had been mum on details.
JPEG standardization could improve the format's prospects, said InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee. "That helps the potential future of the standard significantly," he said. With an open standard, it will be easier to win allies such as camera makers, and competitors "won't feel as wary about adopting it."
Microsoft hopes the format will put its products squarely in the center of people's digital doings. Windows Vista has built-in support for the file format.
"It's going to make Vista more attractive as an operating system to use," Rossi said.
Microsoft has found some partners for JPEG XR. Among those who have endorsed the technology are high-end camera maker Hasselblad, camera image sensor start-up Foveon, and ARM and Novatek Microelectronics, two companies whose chip designs are used for image processing in cameras. Earlier this year, Microsoft already won praise from image-editing software powerhouse Adobe Systems.
Standardization doesn't guarantee success, however. JPEG 2000, a successor to JPEG that came from the same standards group, has been a dud in mainstream consumer markets even though it offered better compression quality.
But JPEG 2000 has become an option in some specific niche markets such as digital cinema, medical imaging, and mapping and geographic information systems. The JPEG organization, in a statement Tuesday, said many of those standards are independent of the encoding scheme. That means that JPEG XR has the potential to unify the more industrial realm of JPEG 2000 and the consumer world of conventional JPEG.
The JPEG organization also praised Microsoft's decision to give free access to any of its patents that bear on JPEG XR. "Microsoft's royalty-free commitment will help the JPEG committee foster widespread adoption of the specification and help ensure that it can be implemented by the widest possible audience," the organization said, encouraging others to take that approach when trying to set standards.
The JPEG XR format began its development as Windows Media Photo, but in a 2006 effort to encourage broader adoption, Microsoft changed the name to the more neutral HD Photo and dropped restrictive licensing in favor of royalty-free terms. The proposed JPEG XR name not only is neutral, but it's already familiar to almost anyone with a digital camera today.
The "XR" in the name refers to the extended range of tones that the format can represent compared with traditional JPEG, one of many advantages Microsoft claims for the technology. JPEG can describe each component of red, blue and green color in a pixel with 8 bits of data; because cameras typically shoot images with 12 bits of data, that means conversion to JPEG typically throws away information a photographer might want, such as details in shadowed faces or the subtle folds of white clothing. JPEG XR can store 16 or 32 bits of data per color for each pixel.
Better compression technology, more details
Higher dynamic range will be important for image longevity, Rossi argued. Five or six years from now, "printers and displays will be well beyond what current JPEG technology is capable of accessing," he said.
Among the other advantages Microsoft touts:
• Compression technology that can record the same quality as traditional JPEG at half the file size or twice the quality at the same file size. In addition, unlike JPEG, the Microsoft format's encoding algorithm can preserve all the pixel data in what's called "lossless" compression.
• A broader color gamut, permitting richer colors and better preservation as images are moved from camera to computer to printer.
• HD Photo images can be immense--262 million pixels on an edge, or 68.6 terapixels total, as long as the compressed image doesn't exceed 32GB in size.
Many photographers today seeking to extract all the data from their cameras use "raw" formats, which capture image sensor information without in-camera processing such as color balance, sharpening, noise reduction and compression into JPEG. Raw images, though, must be processed, often by hand, to convert them from usually proprietary formats into more easily viewed or printed formats such as JPEG or TIFF.
Microsoft, though, hopes JPEG XR will take away some of the need for raw images.
"You're giving people much of the capability of raw in a convenient file format," Rossi said. "On the ultra-high-end there might be still a preference to use raw," he added.
But the bigger challenge will be just getting mainstream photographers to use the format. Standardization, along with the familiar JPEG terminology, could make that easier.
"The bigger challenge is going to be getting the equipment manufacturers to buy in and incorporate that compression standard into their hardware," Lee said. "Once you've got that hardware, you're well on your way to getting it at least adopted by some consumers."