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Microsoft HD Photo
© 2007 KenRockwell.com

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March 2007

INTRODUCTION

Microsoft recently changed the name of an obscure, proprietary image file type, Windows Media Photo, to Microsoft HD Photo. (details here.)

It, just like the long-forgotten JPEG 2000 format, offers the potential of a reduction in file sizes while retaining the same image quality. Just like JPEG 2000, it doesn't offer enough improvement to matter to enough people to let this proposal survive. Microsoft HD Photo will die, just as JPEG 2000 did.

Worse, JPEG 2000 was a standardized format contained within Photoshop, while Microsoft HD photo is not a standard in any way: it's a proprietary proposal which requires you to enter into legal agreements with Microsoft (click licenses) in order to use it. If you agree to be bound by the Ts & Cs, it then works potentially as a plug-in.

JPG 2000 died because no one knew what it was and limited software could read it. It didn't offer anything more than incremental improvement, so it died like many other great ideas no one needed, like the Elcaset, AM Stereo radio and Betamax videocassettes.

Among the cognoscenti, JPEG 2000 has been resurrected and is used by the Digital Cinema Initiative as their standard for the movies many or most of us will be seeing in theaters today and in the near future. In this case, they created a new system and could use newer standards. For us as still photographers, JPEG 2000 died precisely because it wasn't standard enough to allow people to use it and expect that someone else would be able to read the file.

Microsoft's proposal isn't even a standard: it's a proprietary Microsoft hack that requires, at best, for you and the people you hope might be able to see these files, to dick with driver and software downloads. MS only claims "comparable" performance to the dead JPEG 2000 format. If Microsoft HD Photo was better, or even as good, I presume they would have said so.

A History of Failure

Standards need to be standard. The hose at the gas station needs to fit your tank. Power plugs need to fit wall outlets.

If you have more than one standard, you're screwed to the extent of the number of incompatible standards.

If you have to buy adaptors or guess, everyone loses. The reasons different countries often have different standards is precisely because those countries want to limit compatibility, for instance, with DVD regions.

Since I come from decades of earning a living in broadcasting I've seen this played out many times:

Rule #1:

The market eventually creates one standard if a product serves a useful purpose, like VHS over Beta, or greatly improves an old technology, like the convenience and quality of CD over LP.

Rule #2:

The market flushes new ideas down the toilet they are incremental improvements, only appreciated by a few. The Elcaset, Minidisc, Philips Digital Compact Cassette, and Super Audio CD are among these. (I'm unsure if SACD is officially dead yet.)

We'll see if HD DVD movies go anywhere. I doubt it, since there is little real difference for real movies. I've seen this on $30,000 monitors in Hollywood when I worked in telecine mastering facilities all day: for real movies with motion (as opposed to HD demo reels of nature documentaries or static sports), there is no visible difference because our eyes can't see detail while something's moving. It has to hold still!

JPG 2000

JPG 2000 was a new replacement for JPG. It offered at least as much improvement over JPG ten years ago as Windows Media Photo (Microsoft HD Photo) claims today.

JPG 2000 was one of the many formats one could choose in Photoshop's "Save As" menu in earlier versions of Photoshop.

Guess what? No one cared. To read JPEG 2000 files you needed Photoshop. It was a standard, but not common enough to be read with most software. For instance, my mom couldn't see the files.

Today, everyone has forgotten about JPG 2000. Photoshop CS2 can read (open) these files, but Photoshop CS2 no longer offers JPG 2000 in its "Save As" choices.

JPG 2000 was a brilliant idea. It used more modern algorithms than JPG (developed for 1980s hardware) that allowed better photo quality with smaller file sizes. JPG only uses DCTs while JPG 2000 added wavelets.

All this aside, I ran tests of JPG vs. JPG 2000 back around 2000 when Photoshop allowed me to save and play with JPG 2000. I couldn't see any difference.

Today I doubt any of you can remember JPG 2000, and tomorrow, Windows Media Photo and Microsoft HD Photo will long have been forgotten. Worse - since you'll probably need a Microsoft plugin to read the files, you'll be screwed. At least Photoshop CS2 reads the JPG 2000 standard. Poke around your hard drive: I find a JPEG2000.plugin in my Adobe directories.

Here's an article from 2001 heralding the glorious future of JPEG 2000. Today is now tomorrow, and JPG 2000 has long been forgotten.

AM Stereo Radio

AM Stereo radio came out around 1980. The FCC screwed everyone, as they have for HDTV.

For FM Stereo and for Color TV, the FCC chose one, and only one, proposed format and decreed that everyone had to use it. For decades we in the USA take Stereo FM and Color TV for granted; it just works.

AM Stereo came out in the late 1970s when I earned my living in broadcast engineering. The FCC chose one of many proposed formats, and that was good.

The losers threatened to sue the FCC, and the FCC screwed America by backing down and not choosing a standard. Instead, the FCC decreed that any of the four proposals were OK, and left every radio station having to guess which format to buy for their transmitter. Likewise, consumers needed to guess which of the formats (C-QUAM, Harris, Kahn, etc.) would get the most stations.

Because it became a chicken-and-egg proposition, not enough people bought anything, and it all died. There were multi-format radios, but they cost too much so no one bought them either, except for my pals in radio. I even designed and built a decoder from scratch as my BSEE final project in 1983, but it only worked for the Harris format.

Holy Crap! Researching for this article, I discovered that in 1993 the FCC finally did chose one standard for AM Stereo. No one cares anymore. Too bad.

HDTV

Did you know I've been in HDTV since the 1980s? Did you know that for years, starting in the 1980s, the FCC continuously promised us a ruling on a broadcast format, but kept making excuses and pushing back the dates?

Did you know that most of us gave up waiting by the 1990s, since the FCC had cried wolf so many times?

The FCC screwed us all again on December 24th, 1996, when they finally made a decision. They made the same mistake they made for AM Stereo: they didn't chose a standard. They standardized the framework with which to broadcast digital data. They chickened out and didn't define a video format to be contained in that digital framework.

We all could have been enjoying HDTV off the air since 1996, but since those of us in the broadcast world had to chose from any of about 17 video formats as permitted in the despised Table 3, just like AM Stereo, few of us did.

As of 2007 we still have to pick from several HDTV standards, 1920 x 1080i, 1280 x 720p and others.

Because of this baloney, all of us in TV land, producers, broadcasters and equipment makers, have wasted so much effort dithering between formats instead of focusing on making TV and not worrying about formats, HDTV still isn't prevalent 10 years later.

The biggest flaw in broadcast HDTV is the simplest: they got the aspect ratio wrong! For those of you with HTDVs who hate the black bars on the tops, bottoms, or all around your expensive pictures, I warned back in the 1980s that different aspect ratio pictures would never play well together. They still don't, so the wife and I always watch standard definition programming and use a smart aspect ratio converter instead of the bogus HDTV channels with dark side panels or action congested into the 4:3 safe area.

The good news is that you can get movies in real HDTV on DVD from Netflix at no extra charge. Of course there are two competing HD DVD systems, so good luck!

Elcaset, Minidisc, Philips Digital Compact Cassette, Super Audio CD, etc.

These forgotten formats, like Microsoft HD Photo and JPEG 2000, only offered incremental improvements over what we already had.

Not enough people appreciated their improvements for them to reach critical mass, so they died.

For a format to work it needs to be accepted and used everywhere. If not, as in these cases, there wasn't enough infrastructure and acceptance, so even people who loved these formats couldn't get the support they needed, or know anyone with whom they could exchange tapes.

Microsoft HD Photo

Microsoft HD Photo is just like JPEG 2000. To my uproarious laughter, Microsoft claims, and I quote from Microsoft here, that "HD Photo delivers image quality that is comparable to JPEG-2000."

So who cares? Doesn't anyone learn from history? We've been here before.

Good

More efficient than JPG: smaller files.

Indifferent

More bit depth, which isn't relevant to final image quality. It could be relevant if you're using it to store crappy images that need severe level corrections, but images that bad are rarely worth trying to rescue.

Bad

Proprietary: No one can read the files, including yourself, unless you've loaded special software to read them.

Because people will have to be jacked around to read the files, who will bother? We internet publishers and broadcasters know all too well what happens if you ask people to jump through hoops to see your content: they look at something else instead.

In order to download the drivers and plug-ins, you need to enter into a legal contract with Microsoft via the click licenses. Microsoft has patent rights in a lot of the format.

No better performance than JPG 2000, maybe even not as good since MS claims "comparable." If it was as good or better, they would have said that.

JPG 2000 was an accepted, open format everyone could use, and it died. Microsoft HD Photo isn't yet a standard, and it's property of Microsoft. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't archive my images in it.

The Future

I'd love a better (more efficient) format. As you folks know, I often report about the efficiency of the JPG coders in my digital cameras (I prefer Canon and Sony over Nikon).

For a format to survive it needs to be universal and accepted, like power plugs and JPGs.

If a better format becomes accepted and universal, I'll embrace it and proselytize for it.

So long as a format remains proprietary or owned by someone, like MS Word (you have to buy MS software to read it), or isn't legible on every computer and lab printing kiosk, I won't touch it.

References

MS's press release is here.

MS's technical specifications are here. Note that you need to enter into a binding legal agreement with Microsoft (a click license) just to look at the specs!

ZDNet has an article here.

Please forgive me if I've gotten anything wrong; I'm just a guy who likes to take a lot of pictures.

PLUG

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

Thanks for reading!

Ken

 

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