Imaginary battles

Acrylic, Microsoft's image and vector editing program, may not be a Photoshop killer, but it has a couple of suprises up it's sleeve.

Is Microsoft targeting Adobe? That's the question some graphics pros have been asking as the Seattle-based software giant seemingly muscles in on what was once Adobe's multimedia territory.

The fighting talk started in April, when Microsoft announced that a new technology, Metro, would ship with Windows Vista (previously Longhorn), its upcoming operating system. It was suggested that Metro, in essence a document file format and page-description language, could compete with Adobe's PDF (portable document format). Any serious examination, however, makes it obvious that Metro isn't yet a serious PDF alternative. Instead, it seems designed primarily to benefit Microsoft Office users.

With Metro, every Windows application will be able to open files created in Office, even if they don't have the originating app. And Metro-enabled printers will be able to produce better-quality images from the likes of PowerPoint and Word.

But just as clear is the fact that Metro will lack any multimedia features, so if you work with interactive forms, you'll still need a PDF-compatible authoring tool. In any case, given the near-ubiquitousness of PDF in the office, I doubt Microsoft would seek to challenge Adobe's supremacy in this area anyway.

Enter Acrylic

Just as the fuss about Metro was dying down, Microsoft made a second announcement: the availability of a beta version of Acrylic, an image and vector editing program. It's out of beta now, and available as a "technology preview" that will time out on December 31st - just go to www.microsoft.com/downloads and search for "acrylic".

Many pundits were quick to sniff another attack on Adobe and label this a "Photoshop killer". That's a name that will never stick. There's little doubt that when Acrylic is released, it will deservedly have a huge impact. After all, it's a unique creative tool - no other program on the market allows you to seamlessly mix vector and pixels like this one does (see FIGURE 1). By contrast, Photoshop only really deals with pixels, or bitmaps. Vectors, or line drawings, are left to its stablemate Illustrator, although Photoshop can now work with smart objects - vector objects included in Photoshop files that remain editable in Illustrator.

The truth is that Acrylic isn't as revolutionary as you might at first think. In fact, Microsoft makes no secret of the fact that the program's lineage can be traced back to the venerable Expression, a product sold to Microsoft years ago.

Despite Microsoft's desperate need for a decent image editor, I doubt any of us are going to use Acrylic to replace Photoshop Elements, PaintShop Pro or Picasa when it comes to editing our photos. There's no doubt that the program has the basic tools, with support for most bitmap and illustration formats. But, at least in beta, Acrylic is too slow - yes, even slower than Photoshop Elements - and the list of missing features is too long to trouble Adobe at the professional end.

Acrylic's list of bitmap filters is adequate, but patchy. And the program lacks serious high-end production tools. While it has features like Curves and Levels (see FIGURE 2), there's no equivalent of Photoshop's adjustment layers, and any serious graphics application needs integration with layered Photoshop images, which is something that Acrylic doesn't yet offer.

A final problem is that Acrylic, unlike its predecessor, is Windows-only. Microsoft will have a fight on its hands to establish the program as a standard by restricting its potential market in this way.

Illustrator killer

Rather than Photoshop, Acrylic has more to offer as an alternative to Corel's Painter or Adobe Illustrator. Thanks to features such as Skeletal Strokes (see FIGURE 3) and support for bitmaps, Acrylic is a more versatile tool than Illustrator or Painter.

But that still doesn't address some of the valid questions raised about Microsoft's long-term strategy. Why didn't it do the simple thing and devise its own PDF-based print engine - there are plenty of alternatives it could buy - rather than build Metro from scratch? And why have some features found in Creature House Expression, such as Flash export, mysteriously disappeared from the Acrylic beta? The answers may only become clear when Windows Vista ships.

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Tom Gorham

PC Advisor (UK)
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