Microsoft to Support RAW Photo Format in XP, Longhorn

Microsoft will add support for the RAW digital photo format in Windows. It will be provided as an add-on to Windows XP and natively in the Longhorn release of Windows.

Microsoft says that it has been working with partners Adobe, Canon, Fujifilm and Nikon to provide RAW support.

Currently, most consumers do not have a need to use RAW format files. Most professional and so-called “prosumer” digital cameras offer it as a basic file type that photographers can capture images in. While it preserves much more digital information than the ubiquitous JPEG format, the files are also much larger and harder to work with. For one thing, JPEG files are compressed while RAW files are not.

Professionals and aspiring professionals like RAW, however, because it enables them to have much more control of modifications to the image after the fact, during post production or what photographers refer to as “workflow.” Additionally, as prices for digital cameras have followed the classic price descent typified by PCs, and more cameras become capable of saving files in RAW format (as memory prices continue to fall), some observers believe RAW will become popular among general consumers.

Today, popular professional tools like PhotoShop support RAW files. “Unlike a JPEG, which is processed in the camera, a RAW file is processed on a PC, where the exposure and color can be adjusted after the image has been captured,” Microsoft officials said in a statement. “However, each new camera model introduces changes to RAW image files [and] this in turn requires that digital imaging applications must also be updated to support these changes.”

That, in fact, raises a touchy issue for imaging professionals. RAW is not a file standard. It is merely a common name used for the actual (“raw”) data format that the camera creates – plus some metadata that includes the camera’s settings for that photo. All vendors’ RAW formats are different and proprietary, and some are also encrypted.

The camera vendors have typically provided their own translators but many pro users are frustrated, complaining about intellectual property ownership as well as poor performance in the vendors’ utilities. There have also been cases where a vendor has dropped support for an older RAW format. All of this jealous secrecy has also at times made it difficult for companies like Adobe to provide the capability to view and edit some vendors’ RAW files.

Some users have even formed an ad hoc standards “body” named that is aimed at trying to force standardization on the industry from a grassroots standpoint. There has been little, if any, cooperation among the big industry players to date, however. Some observers view Microsoft’s participation as welcome, because the company, along with its partners in this initiative, may have enough clout to pull the big players into line.

Microsoft says it is working closely with its partners to ensure that users will be able to have a consistent experience as RAW’s popularity grows. However, the list of Microsoft partners does not include all the major players in the camera business – Sony and Kodak are both notably absent, for instance.

However, hundreds of millions of copies of Windows XP and Longhorn can be a large lever and financial motivator towards encouraging more openness among vendors. By providing support for vendors’ RAW format files in the operating system, in other words, getting the formats from the camera makers themselves to be included in the OS may help accomplish nearly the same thing.

First on the bill is the Microsoft RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer for Windows XP. This will soon be available for free download at Microsoft’s Web site. The RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer will let consumers view thumbnails and previews, as well as enable printing and metadata display of RAW images directly in Windows Explorer. A future version of Microsoft Digital Image Suite will provide capabilities for organizing, editing and converting RAW files.

The company is also developing a certification program to assure users that third-party codecs (coder/decorder) work correctly with the supported RAW formats.

Longer term, Microsoft will incorporate support for RAW files natively into Windows Longhorn. That release is due in time for Christmas 2006.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.