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<The battle of the Vector Graphics>

By Daniel Will-Harris 

4-02-01: OK, so it’s been almost two years. Have you heard of PGML? I don’t think so. Adobe seems to have given up--using the Flash .SWF format for their own Live Motion software. PGML may return, but in the mean time, if you want vector graphics on the web, use Flash.

4-27-98 - Get ready, there’s another web file format war brewing. This one concerns vector graphics on the web.

Up until now, the two basic web file formats, GIF and JPG, have both been “bitmapped,” which means they’re made up of tiny dots. While this format works fine for many kinds of graphics such as photos, vector graphics (made up of lines and curves) are more practical, more compact and more efficient for other types of graphics, such as line art, maps, graphs and type-based art. Vector graphics allow the viewer to zoom in almost infinitely with no loss of detail. Vector graphics are also better for printing, because they can print at the full resolution of the printer, rather than being locked into low-res screen resolutions of 72 and 96 dpi.

>Two Today

Right now there are really only two practical vector formats for the web. The first, and most popular, is Macromedia’s Flash, .SWF (Shockwave Flash), the format from the program of the same name. Flash files are extremely compact, offer built-in anti-aliasing for smooth display, allow the web visitor to zoom in to see detail clearly (because vector graphics are lines instead of dots, you see details instead of jaggies), and include interactivity and animation. Flash is a well-designed and easy-to-use drawing and authoring tool, and it uses a very compact Active-X, or plug-in, or Java-based-player for viewing.

The other vector format, one which has yet to gain popularity, is Xara’s own .WEB for “Flare,” format. While not quite as compact as Flash, .WEB includes features such as transparency that Flash lacks (Flash 3 adds them, but they are still not as sophisticated as Xara’s).

.WEB includes automatic anti-aliasing, a compact ActiveX and plug-in for the browser, but lacks Flash’s interactivity and animation abilities. Xara created Webster in part so that people could convert existing vector files into .WEB format. While .WEB is a great format, Corel is not behind it, and on its own, Xara Ltd. lacks the political clout to make it a standard on the web.

So for the moment, if you want vector graphics on the web, you’ll choose Flash. Of course, Flash has drawbacks--there are still many web users who wouldn’t know how to download and install a plug-in to save their lives. Those using IE4 or a Java-based browser may not have to, but even so, some webmasters shy away from add-on formats like this, rightly fearing that they will cause many web page visitors to miss vital information.

>The war that’s brewing

So the war is not between Flash and Flare, the war is between Flash and a new format romantically called “PGML” (Precision Graphics Markup Language) and backed by Adobe, Sun, IBM and Netscape.

Based in part on Adobe’s PostScript graphics language (and partly on Adobe’s useful, but not always efficient PDF format), and partly on XML (Extensible Markup Language, the “next HTML”), PGML has been submitted to the w3C (the World Wide Web Consortium that sets web standards).

Adobe claims this new format is so compatible with existing PostScript file formats that few changes will be required to illustration programs that can output files like Adobe Illustrator and EPS.

But this is precisely what concerns me about this new format. The reason: .AI and .EPS files are not binary, which means they’re not compressed, which means they are not small, which means they may not download quickly on the web. The PGML spec does include vague reference to compression, so it’s clear that they know this should be a priority, but it’s also clear that PGML is in such early stages that there’s little really sure about it. What’s more, part of the sales pitch for PGML is that its ASCII format makes it more open and easily accessible, and if it’s ASCII, it’s not compressed and if it’s not compressed, it’s not efficient for the web. So take your choice.

Adobe has already tried to make its “Bravo” (meaning graphics in PDF format) a standard with Sun, and this has failed miserably. However, this new format, because of its ties to XML, has a real chance, because when combined with XML, it means that the contents of the graphics could actually change for each viewer depending on what they are viewing on the page. For example, you could view the same graph in different formats (pie, bar, graph), depending on what button you press, or the text inside a graphic could vary based on news headlines. Flash has a new component called “Flash Generator” which will do this from the server, but because XML can do this from the browser, it offers a more flexible experience--for those with the authoring technology to take advantage of it.

(You can read the full submission report and decide for yourself at http---www.w3.org-TR-1998-NOTE-PGML.

There’s one more big question mark in the file format fracas--Microsoft. Sources say that IE5 includes vector graphics support, but I’ve yet to hear what it supports. It would be logical for it to include Flash, since msn.com itself has used this format for some time and has supported it in the past. We can only hope so! Why both IE and Netscape don’t just build in the less than 100K Flash attachment is beyond me, but surely it has to do with corporate politics.

Macromedia has just released the source code for Flash, meaning that any graphics company that wants to can now create an export filter to create .SFW files. This makes it much easier for the format itself to become popular, because you’re not locked in to only using the Macromedia tool to create it. Macromedia has also submitted .SWF to the W3C to make it into a “standard.”

>Supposedly not a war

According to InfoWorld, the two major parties involved want to avoid a war. “One thing both companies want to avoid is competing vector graphics standards.

‘We have a common end result,’ Simonides said. ‘It would be a mistake if these became separate proprietary standards, because you end up splintering support.’

Norm Meyerowitz, chief technology officer at Macromedia, agreed. ‘We don't want this to be another political war. We want to move the Web forward,’ he said.”

And while these sentiments are commendable, if there are two formats, and the major browsers don’t automatically support both, then we’re going to have trouble, right here in River City.

>Sometimes, wars are good

Like the fractured DHTML format, which has really only been solved by NetObjects Fusion3 and Macromedia Dreamweaver, having two separate vector formats could be a problem.

Then again, maybe not. GIF and JPG each have their own advantages, and knowledgeable webmasters know to use GIF for graphics with few colors, JPG for graphics with many colors like photos. It’s possible that Flash will be used for very compact graphics, and PGML will be used for more interactive, searchable graphics.

Lynda Weinman, best-selling author of Designing Web Graphics, says “One of the things I like best about PGML is its ability to contain searchable text; something no other graphic file format to date contains...”

But the bottom line is this: today the vector format to choose is Flash, and until new programs have Flash export filters, the only way to create them is by using Macromedia’s Flash (or Freehand).

So come on Corel, Xara and even Adobe, get to work on .SWF export filters, because, in reality, this is the only really viable vector format that actually exists, today.

We’ll have to see when and if PGML catches on, and what Microsoft has planned in the way of vector graphics for IE5. So just when you thought it was safe to go back into file formats, you see there are still more unanswered questions ahead.



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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