May 4, 2005

Format wars

Should a company be able to control the way content you have created is stored? Simon Bisson looks at moves towards open file formats. . .

Source: The Guardian
Written By Simon Bisson

Adobe’s recent purchase of its main rival, Macromedia, will change the landscape for graphics applications. It is not yet clear which Adobe and former Macromedia products will survive, but the merger should reduce the number of file formats needed in graphics applications.

Proprietary file formats are a problem. Applications need libraries of conversion tools to handle different files, and there is no way of knowing how accurate the conversion will be. Even if a software company publishes its file formats, there is no way of knowing if the description is accurate, or that an implementation won’t be invalidated by future releases. There is a solution: open file formats, maintained by third parties. However, it is not accepted by many software companies, for obvious reasons.

Macromedia’s Flash is a likely survivor of any consolidation, but a question mark hangs over Flash’s proprietary file formats. Adobe is a major player in the standards bodies that are defining SVG, the Scalable Vector Graphics XML language. The open SVG specification shares many of the features of Flash, and is competing on mobile devices.

With Adobe focused on SVG development in its new CS2 suite of graphics tools, Adobe staff at Code Camp, Orange’s recent developer conference, spoke about moving the mobile version of Flash to the mobile-friendly version of SVG, called SVG-t. With SVG-t support in many new phones, Flash developers could carry on using their familiar development tools for a new generation of mobile internet applications, without making phone manufacturers install costly proprietary players.

The web has also been buzzing for the past few weeks over another Adobe format. In this case, the issue is undocumented features in digital image formats. Digital cameras often offer access to the raw data from the CCD display, which gives photo processing programs access to as much image information as possible. Nikon’s RAW format for its digital SLRs loosely encrypts the white-balance information, which locks users into Nikon’s Capture software. A posting on a web forum by one of the authors of Photoshop revealed that Adobe had worked out how to decrypt the information, but felt that copyright law made it impossible for them to include the function in its software.

In the resulting storm, digital photographers debated the rights and the wrongs. File formats are emotive things, as the files contain their creators’ intellectual property. While it is clear the picture is the property of the photographer, and they should be able to do everything they want with it, there is a question over the camera settings. Is their choice a creative one, or is it just purely a function of the hardware?

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