Can Microsoft's Metro Replace PDF?

Tuesday May 10th 2005 by Brian Livingston

With its upcoming output format, Microsoft is confidently taking on Adobe's de facto PDF standard. But our Executive Tech columnist urges caution to companies mulling a switch.

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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