Microsoft’s JPEG ‘replacement’: The Unifier?

Microsoft is late in releasing a proprietary, closed, image format, but it certainly got there. Much as with WMA and WMV, Microsoft has long endeavoured a lock-in by virtue of media formats. Is the WM Photo format more of the same? Do we really need it? Is it going to spell the beginning of Microsoft’s dominance in the digital graphical media?

Let’s see.

It is certain that Microsoft will try to control and licence the format in a commercial fashion, just as it did with WMV and WMA, leaving the Open Source world out, and asking for royalties from licensees. This is bound to be the case, considering its past as well as its general strategy. By visiting the Microsoft page one has to accept a licence just to download the preliminary specifications of the format. For a company like Microsoft to offer something like this it must make financial and commercial sense. And it does, and that’s where the format becomes completely unappealing. The explosion of consumer and professional digital imaging markets worldwide introduces increased need for the storage, reproduction and identification of digital images. If Microsoft can control the native format manufacturers use in their products, developers use in their software and users save their data in, it has complete control over the whole industry — it is present in every part of the workflow chain.

Let’s look at today’s popular image formats. Current standards are old and often obsolete, but very widespread. JPEG has been popular not only because of its relatively good performance, but also because of its ‘openness’ (its patent is disputed and thus unenforceable for the time being), while its ‘successor’, JPEG2000 is relatively unknown and largely unused — although it’s also patented there are no licensing costs as of 2006. While GIF has been avoided by many developers and users alike, due to its bad performance (8-bit restriction), the licensing costs incurred by the patents covering its use, it is still commonly found on the WWW, mostly due to the lack of a complete replacement. PNG, its replacement, is a superior lossless compression open format, but until recently lacked browser support (Internet Explorer 6, currently the most recent final version of this browser, has bad/partial support for the standard). It also lacks animation support (MNG, the animated variant is virtually unknown/unused). In the field of high quality lossless formats, TIFF still retains a marginal, but arguably important position. There is also a multitude of RAW formats, i.e. formats that contain the unprocessed information as collected by a digital camera’s CCD or CMOS sensor. (This is typically found as an option in higher-end digital cameras, such as DSLRs). Adobe tried to standardise the RAW format in 2004, with its Digital Negative (DNG) format, although it has not been adopted by the main camera manufacturers or software designers.

There are literally hundreds of other image formats, but I guess the above, maybe with the addition of the Windows Bitmap (BMP) due to its popularity within Windows systems, represent the vast majority of image data around.

The image formats available today are 1) too many, 2) insufficient, 3) no single format covers its own needs in a satisfactory way. The idea of a unified format that would provide:

  1. Extensibility
  2. Compression type selection (i.e. low quality-small size vs v.high quality-large size)
  3. Multiple colour depths, including HDR support
  4. Metadata
  5. Interlacing
  6. Animation/Multiple-Images

The Windows Media Photo format, seems to cater for some of these; specifically it does not make mention of any support for interlacing or animation, but according to Microsoft’s page:

Windows Media Photo is a new file format for continuous-tone still images that surpasses the limitations of existing image formats. Windows Media Photo supports a wide range of features including:

  • Multiple color formats for display or print
  • Fixed or floating point high dynamic range image encoding
  • Lossless or high quality lossy compression
  • Extremely efficient decoding for multiple resolutions and sub-regions

Minimal overhead for format conversion or transformations during decode
Windows Media Photo delivers a lightweight, high-performance algorithm with a small memory footprint that enables practical, in-device encoding and decoding.

Excluding the ‘high-performance’ algorithm that Microsoft claims to have come up with that is fast and has a large operational range (v. low bitrates → v. high bitrates), it’s all about a decent container: one that supports metadata, is extensible and allows the use of existing formats in a smart way.

WMPhoto seems like a step in the right direction, but it’s offered to the world by the wrong organisation. While Microsoft is one of the few companies that can challenge the dominance of ageing formats such as JPEG and GIF and unify those and professional formats such as RAW under its own single format, it is somewhat worrying considering its record and detracts from the value of the format, much like the closed nature of WMV/WMA have made these formats unattractive for many years, despite their arguable superiority at times over older, open formats.

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