With XPS as PDF killer, Microsoft opens second front on Adobe

Microsoft claims superior printing for a lower pro price

Silverlight, the rich-media technology that Microsoft Corp. trotted out last week, isn't the company's only attack on Adobe Systems Inc.’s multimedia dominance. In addition to Silverlight, touted as a potential Flash-killer, Microsoft is quietly putting the moves on Adobe’s other popular consumer technology, the Portable Document Format (PDF).

For more than a decade, PDF has been the most popular way of saving and exchanging static, graphics-rich documents so they can be easily read on any computer. Just as important, PDFs can be sent to any printer without the need of extra drivers, or the fear of garbled text or improperly displayed graphics.

As with Flash, Adobe gives away software to view PDFs -- in this case, the Adobe Reader (formerly Acrobat Reader) -- to consumers in order to sell pricey software to create PDFs to graphic designers, publishers and other creative types. Adobe’s entry-level Acrobat 8 Standard costs $299 per user, with higher-end versions running more.

But for XML Paper Specification, or XPS -- Microsoft's new rival to PDF -- the Redmond company is making the software for free to both consumers and pros.

In mid-April, Microsoft released a combination XPS reader and creator for free download. The software runs on Windows XP and both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003.

Moreover, XPS is built into Vista itself, meaning users can open up and print XPS documents in Internet Explorer 7.0 and create XPS documents from any relevant application by simply choosing the "print to XPS" command.

Microsoft did not comment for this story, though it is likely to make some XPS-related announcements at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in mid-May. 

Some independent supporters say XPS’s price -- it’s also being licensed for free to potential software and hardware partners -- can’t be beat.

"XPS is built into Windows’ APIs, and the tools to manipulate them are free," said RanDair Porter, president of Pagemark Technology Inc., a Redmond, Wash.-based company offering XPS support services.  "If you want to do this with Adobe, you have to go and buy a bunch of software."

Color true, comments allowed

Microsoft also claims a number of technical advantages for XPS. For one, XPS’ use of compressed XML makes XPS documents more searchable and easier to manipulate by outside applications.

XPS also supposedly renders on-screen colors and images to paper better than other technologies, including PDF. Finally, XPS serves as both a file format and a printer language similar to Printer Command Language, which was developed by Hewlett-Packard Co., and PostScript, which was developed by Adobe. That, says Microsoft, allows it accelerate print times.

"Users have been complaining for years, ‘Why does it take so long to print? Why is the color on my screen different than what’s on my printer?’" said Dave Jollota, chief operating officer at QualityLogic Inc., a Moorpark, Calif.-based company that is helping vendors add XPS support to their products. "If you can use the same language to put dots on the screen and put dots on paper, bypassing the conversion process, I do believe the color and the throughput will be better." By contrast, PDF documents still need to be converted to PostScript before they are printed, according to Porter.

XPS also offers more sophisticated digital rights management features than PDF, according to Mike Hamilton, vice president of product management at San Diego-based MadCap Software Inc., whose upcoming Blaze publishing software will support XPS documents and let users add comments to them.

"With PDF, I can read comments, but if I don’t have Acrobat Professional, I can’t add them," he said. "So we’re pretty excited about XPS."

Placating partners (this time)

Finally, Microsoft seems to be avoiding some of its past mistakes.

"When I first heard about XPS, I thought, ‘Here we go again,’" said Jollota, referring to a Microsoft initiative from the early 1990s called Windows Printing System.

Introduced around the time of Windows 95, WPS was technology that was meant to help printer manufacturers build more powerful Windows-compatible printers at a lower price. Microsoft licensed WPS to a number of vendors before suddenly pulling back on it, causing a lot of ill will.

Porter, who was working for another company at the time, recalls being present at a meeting where an enraged executive from an unnamed Japanese printer maker threw an ashtray at a Microsoft executive after being told.

This time around, Microsoft began quietly talking to potential partners as early as two years ago. "They are throwing a lot of internal resources behind this initiative," Jollota said. "I have to give them credit, they seem to be doing things right."

According to Jollota, 80% of QualityLogic’s hardware clients are testing XPS support now. They are looking both at creating software drivers to enable XPS printing and document creation, he said, as well as creating high-performance firmware on more expensive scanners and printers.

HP said it will release some XPS drivers this year.

"Delivery of XPS product support will occur in a timely manner, post-Windows Vista introduction and timed to meet emerging application support and customer needs," said an HP spokesman, who did not elaborate.

Others, such as Lexmark International Inc.Seiko Epson Corp., and Canon Inc. did not return requests for comment, though all have indicated support for XPS in the past.

A Microsoft deadline that requires all printers seeking "Certified for Windows Vista" status after June 30 to also support XPS is having something of a reverse effect, says Jollota. Manufacturers are rushing to get existing hardware approved before June 30 in order to avoid having to support XPS as long as possible.

"The interest is there," said Porter. "But at this point, a lot of vendors are still wondering whether XPS will really become a standard and replace PDF."

While hardware vendors are hesitating, software vendors have forged ahead. Besides MadCap, Autodesk Inc. is letting its CAD software users save their files in a tweaked version of its Design Web Format (DWF) file format that are easily read and printed via XPS. Other XPS supporters include FinerEdge Software LLC and Kofax.

Win, tie or wander off the field?

Will XPS match or even overthrow PDF in the long run? Some analysts are skeptical, pointing to PDF’s lead and the loyalty towards Adobe among publishing and design customers.

Taking on PDF "seems too steep a path to climb," said Kathleen Maher, an analyst at Tiburon, Calif.-based Jon Peddie Research. "PDF is so ubiquitous, it works on every machine. Adobe is even trying to get it onto mobile phones. I just can’t see a reason to use an operating system-specific standard like XPS."

PageMark’s Porter thinks that XPS’ uptake may also initially appear slow, as enterprises, rather than consumers, embrace XPS first.

But others say that Adobe is more vulnerable than it seems.

Hamilton, who was an executive at Macromedia Software before it was acquired by Adobe, says Adobe doesn’t license some of PDF’s most advanced features to potential competitors such as MadCap, reserving them for its own products. That’s an example of Adobe’s proprietary ways that, along with its high prices, are making customers "excited to have an alternative."

He also says that Adobe, after "bashing" XPS, announced last year that it would create a new PDF-type file format that, like XPS, supports XML.

"They were throwing all of these rocks," Hamilton said. "Now they’re jumping on the same XML bandwagon."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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