Thursday, June 24, 2021

Can Microsoft’s Metro Replace PDF?

I wrote in this space
last week
that Microsoft had announced a new output format that
threatens Adobe’s de facto PDF standard.
The new format, code-named Metro, was outlined at Microsoft’s Windows Hardware
Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

Metro, as described by Microsoft, will be included in the next version of
Windows, which is currently known as Longhorn and scheduled for delivery before December
2006. Files saved by Windows applications in Metro format would be viewable to
people who didn’t have the original application and would be printable on any
Windows-compatible printer. That would be true, at least, if the version of
Windows was Longhorn or an older copy of Windows XP or 2003 upgraded with a
downloadable Metro print driver.

Because the new Metro capability would be available to any Windows application
that can print — but would be free of charge — it would compete with Adobe
Acrobat, which enables Windows applications to generate PDF files. Acrobat costs
$250 USD or more at today’s online prices.

Other than eliminating the cost of Acrobat, however, it’s hard for me to see any
advantages that the Metro format will have over PDF, which is widely used for
corporate document management and professional publishing. I quoted Pam Deziel,
Adobe’s director of product development, who assures users that nothing in the
Metro proposal as it stands would outdo PDF’s graphical capabilities.

Microsoft’s Response

Microsoft officials responsible for Metro’s development declined to be
interviewed for this article. But a Microsoft spokesperson, who asked not to be
identified by name, said in an e-mail exchange that Metro would complement
Adobe’s technology while providing other benefits.

“Microsoft has used Metro to optimize the print architecture for Longhorn,
dramatically improving print fidelity and performance,” according to this
spokesperson. “Adobe is a great partner and leading Windows ISV [independent
software vendor]. PDF provides a broad scope of solutions for information
workers, one aspect of which is a fixed document format. Metro is aimed at
solving a specific set of challenges in the document lifecycle, including
viewing, sharing, and printing. Fixed document formats are just one small aspect
of what both Metro and PDF provide.”

Upgrading Windows’ GDI Print Spooler

One aspect of Windows’ document handling that can definitely use an update is
the operating system’s GDI (graphical device interface) printing technology. As
it exists in current versions of Windows, documents that are printed through the
standard GDI print driver can suffer a subtle degradation of gradients and
colors.

At WinHEC, Microsoft presenters repeatedly stressed that Metro print output,
when rendered on future Metro-enabled printers, would preserve the quality of
gradients and semi-transparent objects in images. The new Metro output format
will also support more than 8 bits per color channel, the Redmond company
stated. This would allow an image to contain more than 16 million colors. This
number is plenty for most Windows users but can limit graphic-design
professionals.

If these enhanced capabilities actually appear in the final Metro print driver,
Metro-ready printers might provide superior image quality in the future for
companies that need the highest possible fidelity in color output. This would be
an entirely separate question from whether those same companies would choose to
use Metro files as a way to exchange documents with other recipients.

We Come to Praise PDF, Not To Bury It

In my previous installment, I quoted officials of Global Graphics Software, who
demonstrated some of Metro’s capabilities in an exhibit booth at WinHEC. At the
time, Global’s representatives at the conference explained to me that Metro
output files, compared with today’s PDF format, would be simpler for
content-management systems to index and would have more elegant support for the
extensive Unicode character set.

I received word from another quarter of the company, which develops software for
several printer manufacturers, that Metro would not eliminate PDF or other
output formats.

“We are experts in providing technology to process page description languages
(PDLs) and have been providing core technology to the document and print
industries since 1989,” says Jill Taylor, Global Graphics’ director of corporate
communications. “We have extensive experience in working with Adobe’s PostScript
and PDF format and have a number of products that the industry relies on for
processing PostScript and PDF in print workflows. As you know from our
involvement in WinHEC, we will be offering RIP [raster image processing]
technology to support Metro in the future. There is room in the market for all
these PDLs and the suitability of one over another is really down to the user
environment and the application.”

Building Upon PDF Or Replacing It Entirely

If Microsoft wanted to enhance the ability of Windows applications to produce
high-quality output, one question for the Redmond company is why it didn’t
simply develop a new print driver that would generate files in PDF format. The
Metro format, after all, isn’t built into a single printer that’s commercially
available today.

While Microsoft couldn’t duplicate Adobe’s Acrobat code without paying license
fees, it could easily produce a driver that would create PostScript output. The
PDF file format is well understood, and numerous small software companies have
built their own applications that output PDF files using any Windows
application.

If your enterprise wishes to generate PDF files, you can easily do so without
buying copies of Acrobat. Many publishing experts recommend the completely free
PrimoPDF application,
which is available from ActivePDF Inc. The company hopes you’ll eventually
purchase its more advanced software, such as ActivePDF
Maestro
($35) or ActivePDF
Composer
($79). But the free PrimoPDF doesn’t require these add-ons, and
it’s all most PC users will ever need to generate their own PDF files from most
Windows applications.

The forthcoming Metro format, of course, has the benefit for Microsoft that the
technology’s future capabilities, direction, and distribution will be under the
software giant’s control, not Adobe’s.

Many of these policies are unknowable today. This alone should make your company
reluctant to standardize on Metro as a document format before it’s become
well-established in the market (if that day, in fact, ever comes).

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