Thursday, April 13, 2006

Observations: Microsoft’s XPS—After All These Years, More Mumbo Jumbo?

This month, Jim Lyons, a 25-year veteran of the printing and imaging industry, looks at the evolution of document formats and shares his insights on the symbiotic relationship between Adobe and Microsoft.

It was 1989 when Adobe cofounder John Warnock memorably decried Apple and Microsoft’s joint effort to circumvent true Adobe PostScript as a requisite for PC publishing. The stage was the Seybold publishing conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. As a strong-willed industry leader, Warnock was fiercely defensive of his company’s technology, strategic direction, and profits. Still, as the saying goes, it was a shock if not a surprise to witness Warnock’s virulent, unscripted response to Bill Gates’ opening speech announcing Microsoft and Apple’s effort. Warnock famously (and emotionally) described the announcement as the “biggest bunch of garbage mumbo jumbo,” a comment that lived on in infamy for years.

Still, Warnock had a point! Apple and Microsoft had haphazardly come together around a font standard code-named “Royal” and a strategy to develop a PostScript clone (these were later trade-named TrueType and TrueImage, respectively). A software pied piper named Cal Bauer had promised an easy path around genuine Adobe PostScript technology, and he somehow convinced the usually circumspect executives at Microsoft and Apple to follow it. (It was during the John Sculley era at Apple, who coincidentally employed a Royal-evangelist lieutenant named John Scull.)

Back then, the Seybold conference was no stranger to controversy. At the same venue just three years earlier, HP attempted its own publishing-language end run, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously declared HP’s PDL tactics (document-description language, or DDL, instead of PostScript) to be “brain dead.” And between 1986 and 1989, Apple and IBM announced an unlikely alliance to develop PowerPC-based products at the Seybold conference. Even though this announcement was only marginally related to publishing, in those days it seemed that if a company had something weighty and controversial to announce, Seybold was the place to do so, so the show had long sparked discussion and debate among attendees.

But the 1989 “mumbo jumbo” blowup was probably the show’s most memorable, and here we are again, 17 years later, with Microsoft poised to introduce its new Windows Vista operating system, which includes a built-in portable document format built around industry standards (XPS stands for XML Paper Specification). One easily derived prediction is that the software giant’s clout will soon eradicate the currently entrenched document format, Adobe PDF. Another contrary take is that XPS has too many restrictions (it is really not cross-platform, for example) and that PDF is too well-established in the marketplace. Sounds like the same arguments bandied about in 1989!

It is amazing that many of the same players are still involved, although the scenario has evolved from the classic love triangle of the late 1980s between Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft to more of a face-off between Adobe and Microsoft. Apple, it could be argued, is the platform of choice for the publishing industry, but the company is not central to this fight. HP, the leader in desktop printing back then, remains an interested party. A list of new, smaller companies such as Global Graphics, Monotype, Quality Logic, Software Imaging, and Zoran have a role in the XPS/PDF debate and may benefit from the XPS momentum, provided they can respond quickly and proficiently to market demands.

Despite the many similarities between the situation in 1989 and today, I’m not saying things haven’t changed—things have changed radically. The biggest difference is the character of the “documents” being described by the XPS and PDF standards. In 1989, publishing was nearly synonymous with printing. Today, and for a long time now, publishing includes electronic formats, and the documents described may never be available in hard copy. PDF was developed as a PostScript by-product in the early 1990s, and despite its strength and industry-standard status in the printing market, its real growth has been as an electronic exchange format, boosted by the emergence of e-mail and the Worldwide Web. Although document portability is part of both yesterday’s and today’s debate, back in 1989 file exchange in publishing was largely accomplished via Syquest cartridges and FedEx shipments.

Today, the pervasiveness of PDF is staggering. Adobe reports an installed base of 600 million Acrobat readers; 20 million individual PDF documents are available on the Internet; and the IRS reports that 1.3 billion PDF tax forms have been downloaded since 1996. Those numbers alone make XPS knocking PDF off its perch as the dominant file-exchange format seem to be a monumental and unrealistic goal indeed, at least in the near future.

I predict that there will be a role for both PDF and XPS, but it is safe to say the technologies will follow a path with many twists and turns. Since the momentous 1989 Seybold show, PostScript clones have caught on, but TrueImage never found widespread market success. TrueType fonts live on today, and while Display Postscript is a distant memory, Adobe subsequently created Acrobat and PDF.

Ever since writing my initial “Observations” column in December 2005, I have been reflecting on the past—in this case at events that occurred almost two decades ago. But in my columns, I have also endeavored to look ahead, applying lessons of the past to suggest what we might expect in the future. While I am looking farther back than I did in my original column, I am also looking further ahead: it seems Vista is now scheduled to ship in 2007, rather than the mid-2006 date promised earlier this year!


Chriswab said...

Hi ich bin Chriswab aus Bottrop !! Viele Grüsse !!

MaestroBri said...


I'm probably one of the rare few left who actually find considerable value in many of Microsoft's products. I've had relatively few problems with the ones I use, and I've found over the years that the people who do have problems with them usually a)suffer from patience deficit disorders, b)are asking the product to do something it's not designed to be good at, c) don't know how to use a computer, or d) are just bent on complaining about how the capitalist man is trying to keep them down.

Having said all of that though, I don't understand why Microsoft continues to expend R&D and Marketing dollars in areas in which they absolutely suck. Microsoft is bad at music and video production, management and playback; worse at photographic production, management and design; and absolutely horrible at desktop publishing at ANY level. Yet, they continue to pump out garbage in hopes of stealing market share from experts in all of these fields. Imagine how good (and secure) the Microsoft OS could be if the company focused the time, money and energy that it wastes on WMP, Picture It, and Publisher on Windows.

Photizo Group said...

Excellent and insightful article. It's a real pleasure to see that you will be sharing your thoughts and observations via this blog. This will be a benefit to the entire industry.
Ed Crowley - CEO / Photizo Group

right-thing-right-way said...


As you know I was there. High tech is like the soap opera, so much changes but nothing changes. It will be very interesting to see whose technology becomes dominante on the hand-held devices, those we know today, on those on the horizon. Much is at stake on this front and it is good to see that some of the seasoned compaines of "hardcopy" are blazing the new trails. It not the years, its the miles