Microsoft Metro Threatens Adobe Acrobat

Will Microsoft's new document format really change the way computer users save and print files? And what changes would this require of your company? Executive Tech columnist Brian Livingston looks at how Metro stacks up to PDF.
After months of speculation, Microsoft unveiled on April 25 at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) details on its new document format code-named Metro. This format is considered by many to be aimed at the heart of Adobe Acrobat, the application that produces PDF files, today's ubiquitous view-and-print standard.

Will Metro really change the way computer users save and print files? And what changes would this require of your company?

I've found that Metro is more than it seems at first glance, and less. Allow me to explain.

The New Print Output For Longhorn

The one thing certain about Metro is that it'll be the new print-output format built into Longhorn, the next version of Windows, which Microsoft now promises to deliver before December 2006. Here's how Metro will work in Longhorn:

Old apps will ignore Metro. Software applications that were written before Longhorn, and which therefore don't support Metro, will continue to save documents and print files in Longhorn just as they did in Windows XP, 2000, and other versions. These apps will print to Windows' existing print driver, known as GDI (Graphical Device Interface). The GDI print subsystem outputs a stream of data appropriate for whichever printer is selected.

Metro is for new printers. If the computer user has a new-style printer that supports Metro, and an application that understands Metro, the application will send a Metro print file directly to that printer. If the printer has a powerful CPU, the device may "negotiate" with Windows to process the file itself, which may return control of the computer to the user more quickly than is the case today.

Metro can convert output for old printers. New, Metro-aware apps may output Metro files, even though a computer user has no Metro-compatible printer. If so, Microsoft's Metro print driver will then convert the output to a format that the older GDI print driver can send to the current printer.

So far, this sounds a lot like PostScript, the page description language that Adobe Systems created as the basis of its platform-independent output technology. Microsoft, however, has big plans for Metro. The new spec is shaping up as not just a print-spooler format, but as a legitimate file format in its own right that the Redmond company will urge companies to use to store all their documents.

A Universal Container for Documents

At WinHEC, Microsoft presenters explained that applications could save documents in Metro format as well as print them in Metro format (to Metro-capable printers). Such documents could be edited by the original application but could also be viewed in and printed by any application that understood Metro, whether or not the app that created the document was available to the user.

This raises the question of compatibility. Will future components of Microsoft Office, say Word for Windows 2007, save documents in Metro format by default? If so, how would older versions of Office applications open, edit and save such Metro documents?

The answer I received, without being in any way an official response from the Office developers' group, was that applications with proprietary file formats could easily store that format within a Metro file. This would allow the file to remain editable while also making it universal -- that is, viewable in and printable from any other Metro-capable application.

Microsoft says the Metro format will be open and free for anyone to license. The company also says it will release Metro upgrades for all versions of Windows "back to XP." This presumably means that XP and Windows 2003 users could upgrade to Metro, but Windows 2000, Me, and 9x users could not. It also seems unlikely that users of Apple, Linux, Unix and other operating systems would get Metro capability initially, although this could conceivably be developed by third parties.

The Impact Of Metro In Corporations

It's the multiple-format capabilities within Metro that hold the greatest impact for companies large and small. A Metro file essentially is a container for different parts or even versions of a file, such as an editable version and a printable version. In fact, such files are expected by Microsoft to have an extension of .container, not .metro. The multiple-format potential of Metro gives Microsoft some hope of seeing its adoption by corporations as a universal data standard.

To understand this, it's necessary to know how a Metro file is made up:

A zipped container file. A Metro file, above all else, is a ZIP file. The ZIP format is now well understood and relatively easy for Windows apps to handle. Multiple files can easily be contained within a single, compressed ZIP file.

XML to represent the output. As a print format, Metro uses XML to define a new page description language. The Metro language, like other PDLs, describes how words and images will appear in specific locations on a page. A Metro file, like a PDF file, prints out with the same line breaks and page layout on any graphical printer.

Everything the document needs. A Metro print file also contains all of the fonts and other files that an output device may need to render the document. This includes color profile data, which ensures accurate color output if the document contains images. As stated above, an editable version of the printable document could also be included within a Metro file, if an application supported this capability.

Why would a business choose to save its documents in Metro format rather than PDF format, or in the format of the original application, such as .doc or .xls? To answer that question, I spoke with officials of Global Graphics, including its vice president of product marketing, Ralph Lloyd.

Content Management Systems for the 21st Century

Global Graphics has been working with Microsoft on the Metro specification since 2003. The Hudson, N.H., firm develops printer technology for many of the largest names in consumer and business output devices.

As Lloyd explains it, Metro files have several advantages over PDF files:

Indexability. The text in a Metro file consists of UTF-8 or UTF-16 Unicode text. Storing that text in XML format within a Metro file would make the prose relatively easy for a corporation's content management system to store, index, and retrieve. A company might decide to save all its documents as Metro files and access them via a large, central database. PDF files, Global Graphics officials say, use a more convoluted method to store and access text, which is less convenient than Metro's design.

Unicode support. Metro's native text features are designed for Unicode, including support even for Asian characters beyond Unicode's old 64k limit. PDF, by contrast, has older and less elegant means to represent non-Western character sets, in this view.

Color and imaging effects. Metro supports advanced color depths (more than 8 bits per channel, which is important for high-end printing) and has better support for transparency and gradients than PDF, Lloyd says.

Will these advantages -- to the extent that they actually make it into deliverable Metro implementations -- be enough to displace PDF from its perch in business today?

Adobe Shows Little Concern Over Metro

Pam Deziel, Adobe's director of product development, disputed in a telephone interview the idea that Metro would have any better text or graphical features than PDF.

"There was nothing I'm aware of that Microsoft announced about Metro that would allow Metro to exceed the graphical capabilities of PDF," Deziel said. She points out that Acrobat 7.0, the current version of Adobe's PDF-creation software, already allows users to create a PDF file that contains an editable version of a document, which is called an "attachment."

Adobe's PDF format required years to work its way into the preeminent role it now plays in the printing industry. In addition, the vast majority of Internet users have installed free versions of the Adobe Reader, which allows them to view and print PDF files from Web sites and other sources. As a result of this deep penetration of the market, PDF files are now accepted by U.S. federal courts for electronic case filings and are used in thousands of other ways by many other organizations.

Except as a print format that speeds up the processing of new output devices, it's hard for me to see Metro -- with all its PDF-like functionality -- quickly dislodging PostScript from the market.

Next week in this space, I'll report further on the reaction of Adobe and others to all this hubbub about Metro.

In the meantime, more information on the new format is available at Microsoft's Metro page.

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