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Microsoft's XPS File Format

Impact of the new XPS file format on the wide-format marketplace.

Microsoft has gotten serious about entering the commercial-quality print-output marketplace, and the impact of its new XPS file format will likely have a significant impact on the wide-format marketplace.

"XPS" stands for XML Paper Specification, and this is the core printing technology in Microsoft’s new Vista operating system. It replaces the old GDI print technology in previous Windows iterations. As you’re probably already aware, GDI had several inherent weaknesses that made it difficult to output files created in GDI in the high-end print space, including: It did not support CMYK or pure black output, nor did it support certain color spaces common to high-end workflow including device-N colors; it also did not support sophisticated gradient shadings or transparency.

On the other hand, XPS supports all of these and more. Microsoft has placed XPS directly into the market space that’s now dominated by Adobe’s PDF file format, and it’s not an insignificant contender. As the Vista operating system finds its way into corporate file creation, there will be hundreds of millions of XPS documents being created.

This presents wide-format print shops with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that more graphically sophisticated files will be created by less-knowledgeable (and less-print-aware) operators. But XPS also offers good pre-flighting tools and some rich capabilities for creating solid print files with minimal training-you cannot, for example, create a valid XPS file without including all of the fonts necessary for output.

XPS, then, would be an important innovation even if it would only impact the Windows-based Microsoft Office software that dominates so much of the corporate-printing marketplace. But Microsoft also is opening up the system to third-party developers, including RIP manufacturers. And the company appears very interested in creating capabilities for typical office documents to be printed in commercial-print settings.

Unanswered questions
S everal questions about the format have yet to be answered. One of these is: Which applications and print devices will begin to add XPS capabilities to their product lines? In the early days, it’s likely that facilities needing to print XPS files will do so by first converting them to PDF for PostScript-something that’s easily done, but which also contains the typical "gotchas" inherent in any file-conversion solutions. It will take some time to test whether any issues will crop up in the conversion process.

XPS also will be available as a download for older Windows operating systems. Microsoft says it will offer export-to-XPS as an option on the next Mac version of Microsoft Office. A Linux version also will be offered, the company reports.

To read XPS files in their native format, print providers will need XPS Viewer. with Acrobat Reader, XPS Viewer will be available for other platforms, probably by the end of this year. For now, all XPS-capable applications from Microsoft include both an "export as XPS" and an "export as PDF" button.

Global Graphics, which OEMs RIPs to many major software companies serving the wide-format market, has been contracted by Microsoft to help with the development process of XPS-with the specific intent of ensuring that the technology will be able to cross the divide between office and commercial-print capabilities. Global Graphics also is taking a central role in encouraging the companies to which it OEMs RIPs to develop native XPS-compatible RIPs. These RIPs would allow operators to make use of all the new capabilities of XPS without converting the files to other formats in order to properly process them. How quickly third-party companies create printer drivers and RIPs probably hinges on how rapidly Microsoft deploys Vista, and how comfortable file creators become with the XPS format.

An important note here: Since XPS is the default print mechanism for Vista, it’s likely that print providers soon will begin having XPS documents showing up on their FTP sites and CD disks. It may well be that once XPS starts catching on among corporate users, IT departments will begin enabling computers running Windows XP to take advantage of the XPS print system.

Shaking out
There will certainly be some time for shaking out potential issues with the XPS print file format, just as there was with PostScript and PDF. The two legacy Adobe file formats, of course, are deeply entrenched in the high-quality print arena; they have been standardized by a variety of industry watchdog organizations including ISO, and Apple even adopted a form of PDF as its native OS page-description format. Hence, it’s not likely that XPS will surmount PDF in the print marketplace in the near future.

What’s more likely is that XPS will gradually migrate into the high-end print market via corporate entities already feeding problematic files like Word .doc and PowerPoint .ppt into the quality print space. Typically, these types of files originate with people who are not aware of the problems these files can cause in the high-end workflows. So, in many cases, printers will be happy to get files in a format that avoids most of those problems.

But will we be able to print these files, even if they are correctly created? The likely answer is: Not without performing some of the "magic" you already need to do with the documents you are receiving today. Certainly the process will not be as formidable as it can be now because the basic file-manipulation process will only require changing the format type. It also should not require dealing with incorrect color spaces, missing fonts, strange re-wraps, etc.

Ultimately, artists will begin designing to XPS’s enhanced capabilities and RIPs will be created to handle them natively. Because the format is extensible and open (not to mention free), it’s also likely that printer manufacturers will work with RIP manufacturers to build in new features and capabilities.

A viable print medium
Where all this will end up is hard to tell, but it’s interesting to note that Paul Collins, Global Graphics’ product manager for RIP technologies, says, "Everyone in commercial printing needs to be thinking now, at some level, about XPS." The best strategy for now, he advises, "would be to consider XPS as a viable print medium in and of itself, and embrace a solution that really takes advantage of the format."

Although Global Graphics clearly has self-interest in such advocacy, I think that the advice is sound. There are several questions surrounding XPS, particularly whether or not it will truly become a cross-platform file format and how quickly all of the various players will jump on the XPS bandwagon. Rather than being a "PDF killer" it appears that XPS simply become will become another format for high-end printing.

Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.