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Microsoft's XPS File Format

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

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By Stephen Beals

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.