XPS is the abbreviation of XML Paper Specification. It is a page description language which can describe a single page or a document containing multiple pages. The description includes all the text and graphics that appear on the page(s). Like other page description languages such as PDF, page elements are defined independently of a particular operating system, printer or viewing application. The page’s appearance is consistent regardless of the specific printer or viewer used.
XPS files can be recognized by their .xps extension. On a Windows computer, the file icon is a small representation of the content of the first page with the blue XPS glider icon in the lower right corner.
XPS is closely linked to the Windows operating system, as it is a part of its underlying graphics architecture since Microsoft Vista. It is probably no coincidence that Apple use its main competitor, PDF, as the graphics model within OS X. The goal of both technologies is offering WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) when viewing and printing documents.
Within Windows, a language called XAML is used to describe how objects such as text need to appear on-screen. XPS is a subset of this XAML language, specifically geared towards a fixed page format so that text cannot reflow when it is sent to different devices. In previous Microsoft operating systems, a technology called GDI was used. Compared to GDI, XPS is graphically more sophisticated and faster when printing complex objects such as transparencies or blends. There is less need for software vendors to implement their own printing technology to get around limitations (as was often the case with GDI).
What can you do with XPS
XPS can be used as a document sharing format, similar to PDF.
XPS can be used as a printer command language. Printer manufacturers can create XPS compatible printers. Some of these are already available, such as the Xerox WorkCentre 7425 and the Konica Minolta 4695MF. These vendors wisely choose to add support for other languages, such as Postscript or PCL, as well in their devices. This makes sure that the millions of XP, Mac OS X or Linux users can also use these printers.
How to create XPS files
As with PDF, there are applications such as Windows Office 2007 that can save documents directly as XPS files. The free Global Graphics gDoc Creator can convert Office files to XPS (and acts as an XPS printer for other types of applications).
In both Vista and Windows XP (with the XPS Essentials Pack installed), it is possible to print to an XPS file. I don’t know why I didn’t get this working on my XP system. On my Windows Vista system it worked fine though.
Windows 7 comes with a Microsoft XPS Document Writer printer which can be used to print any document to an XPS file. It is also included in later releases, such as Windows 10.
I am not aware of any tools to create XPS files on a Mac using OS X. You could create a PDF and somehow convert that to an XPS file but this seems like a rather clumsy and time-consuming way of working.
How to view XPS files
Windows 7, 8.1 & 10: These operating systems ship with XPS Viewer. The application is similar to that of Windows Vista, except for some cosmetic changes and added support for digital signatures. The Viewer application can also be used to edit the document properties and add tags. From Windows 8.1 onwards you can also use the Microsoft Reader app to view XPS files. It is the Microsoft equivalent of Adobe Reader and can be used to open PDF as well as XPS and TIFF files. It can be downloaded from the Windows store.
Windows Vista: Doubleclick a .xps file and it will be shown using the XPS Viewer plug-in that is built into Internet Explorer. You can also install the XPS Viewer EP from the XPS Essentials Pack.
Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server: There is a viewer plug-in available for Internet Explorer. You can also download a separate viewer application, called XPS Viewer EP. It is part of the XPS Essentials Pack. There are some other tools around as well, such as the freeware XPS Annotator, but I never tried any of them.
OS X: Mac users can use the NiXPS View application which allows them to view, search and print XPS documents efficiently. This application is actually also available for Windows. Uploading files to Google Docs and opening them in your browser is a solution if you are a Docs user and only occasionally need to view XPS files on your Mac.
How to edit XPS files
XPS is not meant to be used as a file format for intermediate data that still need to be changed. Like with PDF, you’re not supposed to edit XPS files. Unfortunately, it may sometimes still be necessary. The only XPS editor that I am aware of is NiXPS Edit. I think its developer originally worked for Enfocus on their PitStop plug-in for editing PDF files – an excellent background for creating such a tool.
XPS compared to PDF
XPS and PDF are similar technologies: they can be used to display, share and print paged documents. There are however a number of differences between both systems.
PDF has the advantage of being an established standard, especially in the graphic arts market. Lots of people know PDF and own the tools to modify and process PDF files. Most workflows can either handle PDF files or use it as their internal file format.
- There are clear standards and procedures available to exchange print-ready PDF files. PDF/X and the GWG standards that built on this are perfectly geared towards the printing industry. There are no XPS equivalents.
- PDF is a true cross-platform solution, with viewers available for a wide range of platforms, going from PDA’s to Macs and PCs and even a lot of Unix/Linux flavors. XPS support is limited outside the Windows ecosystem.
- XPS, on the other hand, has the advantage of being ‘free’ since support for it is build into Windows since Vista and Microsoft Office since version 2007. Even though there are a lot of free PDF viewers, PDF creation or editing tools such as Acrobat Professional cost a lot of money, especially for large organizations that need thousands of copies. Next to the licensing cost, deployment costs also add significantly to the price of implementing PDF. Since XPS support is included in the most popular operating system on the market, both the software and deployment costs can be a lot lower.
- It took years before decent PDF tools came to the market. Since XPS is XML-based, it is a lot easier to write software for it. Even though PDF currently has the advantage of having the biggest library of software tools, this might change rapidly and XPS tools may, in the long run, be cheaper and more abundantly available than their PDF equivalents.
- Even though Adobe is a large software company, Microsoft is even bigger and more influential. It will however be an uphill battle to match the popularity of PDF.
- PDF has a soul mate called JDF, the Job Definition Format, which can be used to describe how a job and the accompanying PDF pages need to be processed. Both JDF (job description) and PDF (job content) files can be bundled in a single mime file. XPS has Print Tickets, a technology that describes how an XPS file needs to be printed. Print Tickets are geared towards office printing whereas JDF is geared towards job handling in graphic arts. Technically it is probably feasible to refer to XPS files in a JDF job but it will probably take years before MIS and prepress vendors will even want to look into this, let alone get it working.
XPS and graphic arts
A lot of designers and agencies are still struggling to deliver proper PDF files to printers. Those printers won’t be in a hurry to promote yet another file format. What might happen however is that corporate customers who want to print office style documents demand that printers support XPS. This means that it is worthwhile to know a bit about the standard.
Converting XPS files to PDF is probably the best way of dealing with the initial demand. If XPS really takes off, it is highly likely that the big workflow vendors add support for it to their systems. Since Global Graphics worked on XPS, their Harlequin RIPs do offer native support for this standard.
Even though XPS supports CMYK, even Microsoft Publisher cannot yet embed CMYK data in an XPS document. Microsoft recommends the use of PDF for data exchange with offset printers.
The history of XPS
Microsoft developed XPS in close cooperation with a number of other companies, most notably Global Graphics. The original code name was ‘Metro’.
Users were first able to created XPS documents when Microsoft Vista was released for corporate use in November 2006. In January 2007 the consumer editions of Vista were made available, making the technology available to a much wider audience. The XPS Essentials Pack, a software bundle that adds support for XPS to Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server, was released in April 2008.
In June of 2007, Microsoft handed over the rights to the XPS specifications to ECMA International, an organization that specializes in developing international information and communication standards. Within Ecma, a technical committee called TC46 continues work on OpenXPS, the Open XML Paper Specification. They released various draft versions of the proposed specification during 2008. Final draft 1.6 was published in April 2009 – it can indeed take quite some time to get to the final version of such a document.
Windows 7, which started shipping in October 2009, is the first Microsoft operating system that by default includes full support for creating and viewing XPS files. Two months later Global Graphics launched gDoc Creator, a free enterprise-level tool to create, review, edit, share and archive PDF and XPS documents.