Design Vista

Adobe’s recent takeover of Macromedia leaves it in a position to merge today’s three most important electronic design formats – Acrobat PDF, Flash SWF and Web HTML – into its new Apollo platform, which promises highly designed documents, dynamic multimedia, rich interaction, advanced programmability and live content provided through both browser-hosted internet apps and local desktop programs. It might therefore look as though Adobe’s position is unassailable, and that it can single-handedly determine the future of cross-platform and cross-media design. However, there’s another software giant that has sufficient programmers, resources, vision and sheer market clout to take on Adobe, and that’s precisely what Microsoft plans to do with its long-anticipated and much-delayed launch of Windows Vista.

Design Vista

What makes Vista so significant for designers is its next-generation screen and print display subsystem, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), previously codenamed Avalon. Where Windows XP’s GDI+ simply extended the longstanding Windows Graphics Device Interface (GDI), WPF represents a complete rethink and rewrite, focused on total design rather than just graphics speed: it introduces crucial advances such as re-routing all presentation tasks through DirectX to offload their processing onto a graphics card rather than the CPU.

More fundamentally still, WPF finally provides true vector-based screen rendering – just what Adobe attempted over 20 years ago in Display PostScript. This makes WPF both resolution and device independent, and therefore able to offer true “DPI scaling” – whenever screen pixel density is increased, icons, graphics and text will all improve in quality rather than merely shrinking in size as in current Windows. Designers can specify a particular size and know that’s what the end user will actually see (assuming they view at 100% with the same DPI setting, that is – end users will be able to override the designer’s settings for viewing comfort and accessibility).

With modern screens capable of more than 200 pixels per inch (ppi), designers can move beyond those fonts that are optimised for very low resolution 92dpi display. And WPF supports not only built-in anti-aliasing, but also Microsoft’s proprietary screen rendering technology, ClearType. With ClearType, it isn’t just the luminance of each glyph’s edge pixels that gets varied to produce smoother results, but the luminance of the individual red, green and blue phosphors that make up each pixel. This subpixel rendering produces smoother text and more precise onscreen positioning and line composition. In short, WPF should finally enable onscreen design to move beyond today’s spidery lowest-common-denominator screen fonts – the heyday of Times and Helvetica may finally be passing. But before designers can turn to richer fonts, they need to be sure the end users will actually be able to see them; currently impossible since all users would have needed to install them independently. However, WPF allows a designer to simply embed any typeface for immediate free use anywhere within their application.

Electronic paper

WPF not only provides rich typographic foundations, but alsobuilds on them, as will be apparent from its extensive support for advanced OpenType font features such as extended character sets, ligatures, swashes, small caps, fractions and so on. WPF also supports advanced typographic text composition – in particular, it has automatic hyphenation capabilities built in, along with compositional intelligence that looks at line endings throughout each paragraph to ensure optimal hyphenation and glyph spacing (crucial to readability). Such capabilities were previously the preserve of professional DTP software, but now they’ll be automatically available to the most humble WPF applications with no extra programming effort. With vector-based, subpixel-rendered, advanced text handling, our increasingly high-resolution screens should at last become a typographically rich enough medium to serve as the electronic paper of the future. But WPF also recognises that a screen is an entirely different medium from paper, with its own demands and possibilities.

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