Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Raw: The Adobe way, the Microsoft way and the Open way.

Photographers are reluctant hostages to proprietary Raw formats. Many have become vocal about this uncomfortable position as you can read on the OpenRaw site. In this over-long column I analyze the positions taken by Adobe and Microsoft vis à vis Raw, and indicate one Open way out of the Raw maze.

While I believe the industry, will continue to resist the imposition of any unique Raw format, I can suggest at least one method by which the current lock-in could easily be circumvented by the OpenRaw community. It involves copying Adobe's strategy by means of a free Raw converter called dcraw, and is detailed towards the end of this column.

With the Raw format there seem to be three ways the format inflation can be subdued: The Adobe way, the Microsoft way and the Open way. Let's look at all three.

Adobe's strategy is focused on ensuring that all the core technology for Adobe products be sourced in-house, and runs on all platforms equally well. Adobe has Thomas Knoll's innovative and proprietary ACR-based Raw conversion technology powering Photoshop's ACR Raw plugin.

I believe that all the technical gruntwork to incorporate the Raw format for a new camera format in ACR is done by Adobe. So since DNG has failed to be adopted by the market they have been forced to write I/O and decoding routines for a zillion different formats.

All this hard work has brought positive results for both Adobe and the end user: The resulting intellectual property is fully owned and maintained by Adobe. As a result, the quality of the code and the images it generates can be tuned by Adobe to their usual high standards across formats, bugs get fixed directly by Adobe, and the codebase can be updated and reused at will in Adobe's new products such as Lightroom.

Microsoft's strategy is focused on supporting very diverse hardware cheaply, and well. They achieve this by devolving responsibility to hardware makers: Each vendor supplies a basic decoding plugin for their format. This is similar to the printer market where each company supplies a driver disk which remains the third party vendor's responsibility.

Because the plugins are written directly by the camera makers, adding a new camera to the plugin library means zero additional effort for Microsoft — a significant advantage of this approach. Also, Microsoft does little maintenance work on the plugins.

But the Microsoft way also benefits the consumer: All third-party application programs running under Windows gain the ability to read Raw files, just as they gain the ability to print on any installed printer. The quality of the files is potentially very high because the camera makers can and will leverage all their proprietary technology into their drivers.

Alas, With both Microsoft and Adobe the customer's files are hostage to proprietary strategies.

In the case of Microsoft, the technology to read a format remains mediated by the binaries supplied by the camera makers, even though third party applications gain access to the plugin. This is not Microsoft's fault, but it does make the files hostage to the existence of the drivers.

In the case of Adobe, the proprietary ACR technology for the rendering of Raw is procedurally embedded in the ACR converter itself, and though the DNG file format is public the ACR source code is one of the company's closely guarded secrets So third party applications can decode the settings but not reproduce their effect.

So both camps are neither open nor future proof. If in the future a photographer cannot run the ACR software, or if the Windows plugins stop working, be it for licensing reasons or obsolescence, that photographer loses out.

Indeed, today already Adobe customers must regularly license new PS updates because old versions of ACR cannot read new camera formats.

Surely, there must be many open alternatives to these two approaches ? Let me suggest one avenue below:

David Coffin has written and maintains a GPL'ed Raw decoder called dcraw that can read just about anything. As he puts it: "Here is my mission: Write and maintain an ANSI C program that decodes any raw image from any digital camera on any computer running any operating system."

Dcraw is short (about 7000lines at present), portable and yields decent files. Indeed dcraw has been used extensively in both commercial and open-source graphics software. I can certify that dcraw provides decent, if not stellar, image quality.

I suggest the Open Source community and maybe even the OpenRaw guys write or commission dcraw plugins for Microsoft Windows and Adobe's software, so that dcraw becomes an additional input module to all existing and future software, thereby future-proofing it. In effect, dcraw would become the ACR of the open source community.

Some lobbying, as the OpenRaw movement could easily supply, would ensure that both large firms offer at least token cooperation for such an initiative, such that plugin SDKs would be made available. Technical competence to actually do the necessary programming is sufficiently available in the open-source movement.

Existing packages would then be forward compatible, as long as the dcraw code is maintained for their platforms by the open source community. A lifeboat may not offer the conveniences of an ocean liner, but it sure makes you feel better by just being there !


Monday, February 26, 2007

Spectro football and other games

What is your spectro really worth after the delivery guy has played football with it ?

Well, what you ordered may cost $3K, easily, if it's a chart reader. But if the guy has drop-kicked or caber-tossed it, it's probably worth zilch. Niente, nada, ├╝berhaupt nichts.

Because you don't know how accurate it is anymore.

Spectros are valuable pieces of equipment. Valuable by their calibration. What you're paying for is not the price or the materials, it's the guarantee of accuracy.

Now, I have no doubt that the instruments which Xrite, Barbieri or Minolta make are carefully calibrated at the factory. But are they still so precise when the client gets them ? Are they still precise after a year's worth of daily knocks ?

I just got an iSis XL spectro which got seriously roughed up by the UPS guy. I know it suffered: When it made dreadful profiles I looked inside and found the head cover had sprung open. I'm sure other buyers had similar experiences with their shipments.

So, I'm floating an idea: Why not deliver some physical calibration reference with every instrument ? Then whenever the urge strikes him the user could check whether the device is operating within acceptable tolerances.

Such a reference-bound diagnostic check would not only save the users worry. It would also save manufacturers headaches: Because only genuinely broken instruments would get sent back - I'd bet that nowadays quite a few service calls are really caused by user-error rather than hardware failure.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Adobe Lightroom - a lucrative surrender

The Raw format has gone fully mainstream, as proven by Adobe's launching Lightroom, a package entirely dedicated to filing and non-destructive editing of Raw files.

Lightroom is a surrender, on favorable terms, a retreat with honor. It signals the failure of Adobe's attempt to
impose a unified digital negative (DNG) and thereby commoditize the digital SLR camera.

This attempt at hegemony of the Pro and Prosumer imagery market sems to have failed at least for the time being. The SLR camera market is now owned by Canon, Nkon and Sony, and none of these seems to be in a hurry to kowtow to Adobe. Of course, matters may still change if customers demand Raw in the consumer market, but at that point Microsoft would be in a better position to embrace, extend and profit than Adobe.

In launching Lightroom, Adobe has come late to the party inaugurated by Apple' Aperture, but Adobe seems to have replaced Apple's arrogance with an ear for the customer's wishes, and probably has a bestseller on its hand.

Of course, it is to be expected that Microsoft, who recently acquired iView Media Pro will gatecrash at least the ground floor -consumer use of Raw - of this party when it gets big enough to warrant a landgrab. The PC has become the digital image shoebox, and even Bill Gates has kid pix to save these days.

I will not be discussing color management in Lightroom here, due to a momentarily lukewarm relationship with Adobe PR who see no reason to send me a copy. However, Andrew Rodney discusses the color model for Raw in a very knowledgable article.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

The King (DTP70) is dead, Long live Queen iSis !

The DTP70 is retiring.

Quite a few people have discovered, just now, via the Colorsync list, that the DTP70 is headed for the Smithsonian. Indeed, my friends, I heard it announced in Regensdorf, the one and only DTP70, our beloved DTP70, flagship of the Xrite chartreaders, is being pensioned off .

It's just economics. There has been a takeover of Gretag by Xrite - or is it a takeover by Gretag of Xrite, I do get confused; anyway, it has been decided that the graphics products shall be mainly organized around the true and proven EyeOne technology. Invented and proven by Gretag.

Thus, simplification of the product line of the combined company explains the prior exit of Pulse -replaced by EyeOne Pro, the demise of Optix - displaced by EyeOne Display, and the redundancy of the DTP70 now that iSis is reaching the market.

But what then of the clients who invested in the DTP70 and Monaco Profiler, and who are now muttering rumors in the bazaar ? Let us be sure that Xrite will support them - anything else would be suicidal in this small market.

And software updates? Well, I have been assured that the fans of Monaco Profiler will find their favorite engine and renderings carefully preserved in a forthcoming combined offering. And of course the PMP rocket pilots will get their engine updated too.The guys and gals in Regensdorf know their surest money comes from the installed base, and don't want to offend either one of their client pools.

Which brings us back to the hardware. The replacement for our old and faithful DTP70 is the brand new iSis. The DTP70 was a tried and tested design with an incandescent illuminant , filter technology and an optical UV filter. The iSis is a modern design which incorporates EyeOne diffraction-grating spectro technology, a solid state illuminant and a vision system that can read barcodes.

iSis will doubtless bring us Swiss precision and, we do hope, reliability. This is a conservative business, and I guess it takes at least a year for the pro users to feel really comfortable with any new technology, however good.

Now please excuse me, I need to go and check some profiles I've just made.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Idiot-proof color pays off for HP

We've all been amazed by the rave reviews which the Z-series has been getting from the photo crowd. Are they really that good ? I think they're simply idiot-proof.

Methinks many of the "Gag me with a spoon !" Z-series fans are seeing the effects of seamless working CMS for the first time. Decent color, and painless. And no consultant involved, either. Please, Sir, may I have some more ?

HP has figured out that any custom-profiled printer with decent native drivers will always beat an unprofiled printer.

When the fight involves third party media the fight is even more unbalanced. But the photo crowd do so love their esoteric paper choices. And the channel loves them for their conspicuous consumption. A bartender does like his alcoholics.

Epson and Canon have good print quality, when somebody bothers to make a custom profile for them. Which involves spectros, and/or consultants and/or dongled software and other nasties.

Which is why Epson and Canon should be afraid for their market share — when the sh*t hits the fan - excuse me, when the product hits the market, usability wins over quality every time.

Wait and see.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Speed is the new greed !

I guess a lot of graphics guys are impatiently waiting for the new Adobe Creative Suite to ship, not because of the new features, but because it'll run native on the Intel Macs. Native means faster !

We all know it's gonna happen soon because Photoshop CS3 is in beta, and Lightroom just shipped.

In fact, I bet Apple has some slick powerful new laptops they will bring out to crest the Adobe upgrade wave.

But I like to catch my waves early. I've already got the beta on the current surfboard-sized 17 inch MacBook Pro.

So I can tell you two things you need to know. Firstly, Photoshop 10 (or CS3) is really fast on the G5. And blazing fast on Intel. And second, the screens on the current MacBook Pro are no good for colormanagement.

To use tech-speak, the MacBook Pro matte screen has very high-directivity, that's why it's so bright. That's why every little move of your head makes those colors dance.

And then, the gamut is a joke. I cannot do my camera profiling work on this machine, the reds are so poor.

If Apple brings out a new laptop screen technology, go for it ! The present display is a bummer !