There’s no denying that Microsoft has both audacity and folly in equal measure, and never was this more clearly exemplified than in the news that it is launching an ‘industry leading compression quality’ image format.
Revealed in some detail at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2006 in Seattle, a picture containing more detail than a JPEG at 24:1 compression was proudly on show under the headline of ‘better picture, smaller file’. The Windows Media Photo format, as it’s being called, features multiple color formats for display and print, fixed or floating point high dynamic range image encoding, and extremely efficient decoding for multiple resolutions and sub-regions. Add a simple, extensible TIFF-like container structure, planar or interleaved alpha channel plus embedded ICC Profile, EXIF and XMP metadata for a more rounded picture of the format. If you’ve got access to Windows Vista Beta 2, then you’ll already have version 1.0 of the specification, but everyone else can visit Microsoft for the full technical detail.
While innovation and the march of technology cannot, and should not, be stifled; this is neither. Quite apart from anything else it’s going to have its work cut out to establish itself in the face of JPEG momentum. Marginal improvements aren’t going to convince anyone to take a ‘new’ format seriously, even (or perhaps especially) if it is Microsoft attempting the convincing. Heck, even when a better JPEG came along it didn’t so much as dent the original. Hands up if you remember JPEG2000, and a helping hand to get me up off the floor if you actually use it. I predict you’ll have the same response about Windows Media Photo within a couple of years. It would have to be both far superior to JPEG2000 and freely available to all to make the necessary impact, and I can’t see either happening.
In fact, about the only way I can see this succeeding would be if Microsoft ‘support’ the format in Vista by dropping supporting for JPEG, and that could be commercial suicide. Of course, there is the small matter of what metric you use to measure that success. If it’s replacing JPEG as the default image format of choice for amateur photographer and web designer alike, then it’s doomed to failure. On the other hand, if it’s to be licensed for use on mobile phones where smaller image size without quality compromise is something of a Holy Grail, then maybe I’m being too harsh on Microsoft. But seeing as this is Microsoft, it will probably kill off any hope of real market penetration because of licensing issues.