With XPS as PDF killer, MS opens second front on Adobe

Microsoft claims superior printing for a lower pro price

Placating partners (this time)

Finally, Microsoft seems to be avoiding some of its past mistakes.

"When I first heard about XPS, I thought, 'Here we go again,'" said Jollota, referring to a Microsoft initiative from the early 1990s called Windows Printing System.

Introduced around the time of Windows 95, WPS was technology that was meant to help printer manufacturers build more powerful Windows-compatible printers at a lower price. Microsoft licensed WPS to a number of vendors before suddenly pulling back on it, causing a lot of ill will.

Porter, who was working for another company at the time, recalls being present at a meeting where an enraged executive from an unnamed Japanese printer maker threw an ashtray at a Microsoft executive after being told.

This time around, Microsoft began quietly talking to potential partners as early as two years ago.

"They are throwing a lot of internal resources behind this initiative," Jollota said. "I have to give them credit, they seem to be doing things right."

According to Jollota, 80% of QualityLogic's hardware clients are testing XPS support now. They are looking both at creating software drivers to enable XPS printing and document creation, he said, as well as creating high-performance firmware on more expensive scanners and printers.

Printer and imaging giant Hewlett-Packard said it will release some XPS drivers this year.

"Delivery of XPS product support will occur in a timely manner, post-Windows Vista introduction and timed to meet emerging application support and customer needs," said an HP spokesman, who did not elaborate.

Others, such as Lexmark International Inc., Seiko Epson, and Canon did not return requests for comment, though all have indicated support for XPS in the past.

A Microsoft deadline that requires all printers seeking "Certified for Windows Vista" status after June 30 to also support XPS is having something of a reverse effect, says Jollota. Manufacturers are rushing to get existing hardware approved before June 30 in order to avoid having to support XPS as long as possible.

"The interest is there," said Porter. "But at this point, a lot of vendors are still wondering whether XPS will really become a standard and replace PDF."

While hardware vendors are hesitating, software vendors have forged ahead. Besides MadCap, Autodesk is letting its CAD software users save their files in a tweaked version of its Design Web Format (DWF) file format that are easily read and printed via XPS. Other XPS supporters include FinerEdge Software and Kofax.

Win, tie or wander off the field?

Will XPS match or even overthrow PDF in the long run? Some analysts are skeptical, pointing to PDF's lead and the loyalty towards Adobe among publishing and design customers.

Taking on PDF "seems too steep a path to climb," said Kathleen Maher, an analyst at Tiburon, Calif.-based Jon Peddie Research. "PDF is so ubiquitous, it works on every machine. Adobe is even trying to get it onto mobile phones. I just can't see a reason to use an operating system-specific standard like XPS."

PageMark's Porter thinks that XPS' uptake may also initially appear slow, as enterprises, rather than consumers, embrace XPS first.

But others say that Adobe is more vulnerable than it seems.

Hamilton, who was an executive at Macromedia Software before it was acquired by Adobe, says Adobe doesn't license some of PDF's most advanced features to potential competitors such as MadCap, reserving them for its own products. That's an example of Adobe's proprietary ways that, along with its high prices, are making customers "excited to have an alternative."

He also says that Adobe, after "bashing" XPS, announced last year that it would create a new PDF-type file format that, like XPS, supports XML.

"They were throwing all of these rocks," Hamilton said. "Now they're jumping on the same XML bandwagon."

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