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Microsoft developing technology to ease wireless camera configuration  
Thursday, September 23, 2004 | by Rob Galbraith

Microsoft has made three announcements this week of interest to owners of digital SLR cameras with Wi-Fi transmitters. Right now, the list of such cameras is limited to one model, Nikon's D2H. Within a few months, however, the D2X will join the wireless fray, as will the EOS 20D, EOS-1D Mark II and EOS-1Ds Mark II from Canon.

The announcements include new software that will streamline the setting up of a PC and camera for wireless FTP transmission. Plus, presentations of Microsoft technology at Photokina 2004 that will see a Canon digital SLR front and centre in a demonstration of Windows Connect Now (WCN) in Windows XP SP2, as well as a Nikon digital SLR speaking the new MTP/IP uberprotocol for wireless portable media devices.

A wireless PowerToy

Microsoft will soon be releasing software for Windows XP that eases the configuration of the operating system's built-in Wi-Fi wireless and FTP server functionality. It's targeted at users of Canon and Nikon pro digital SLR models that are compatible with each maker's Wi-Fi transmitters. The software, which will be released as an unsupported PowerToy, will have a wizard-style interface that will query the user about basic parameters, such as the name of the Wi-Fi network to be created and the directory in which pictures from the camera should be deposited. It will then busy itself configuring the machine, handling the adjustment of the computer's geekier wireless and FTP settings automatically.

The process culminates with the creation of a Canon- or Nikon-compatible configuration file (the software asks the user to choose their camera make) that contains the appropriate settings to enable a connection to the computer. This settings file is loaded from a CompactFlash card into the camera (all Nikon and Canon cameras that support or will soon support Wi-Fi transmission can be configured this way).

The screenshots below show part of the process. Note that these dialogs might change even before the preview version is stamped to CD.

wirelesspowertoy_screen2.jpg
Configuring the FTP server in IIS within Windows XP Pro SP2

wirelesspowertoy_screen3.jpg
Process complete

The software, which will probably be called the Wireless FTP Camera PowerToy (the name is still being finalized), will be made available in a preview version on a CD at Microsoft's booth at Photokina 2004. The preview version will not be posted for download on the Web. Within a few weeks after Photokina, a completed version of the PowerToy, one that incorporates changes or additions requested by users of the preview version as well as other planned features not yet implemented, is to be released in the PowerToys area of the Microsoft web site. The PowerToy will be free; as with other PowerToys, it will be officially unsupported.

The working plan is to build it for Windows XP Professional SP2 only, since Windows XP Home doesn't ship with Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) software and its FTP server on the installation disc, as XP Professional does. We hope that an XP Home version of the PowerToy will be considered, however, one that handles the wireless configuration only, while the XP Professional version could tackle both the wireless and FTP configuration tasks as planned.

If the PowerToy works as well as described, Nikon D2H owners in particular should benefit in the short term, since it's this camera and its WT-1/1a transmitter that are both a handful to configure and are also not expected to be upgraded to take full advantage of newer technologies such as the PTP/IP support in the Nikon D2X and WT-2/2a Nikon announced earlier this month, or the MTP and MTP/IP functionality that Microsoft is currently developing.

Microsoft isn't the first to release Windows software meant to streamline the wireless reception of photos from a Nikon D2H. Pixagent's freeware application ITP 1.1 for Windows 98+ and PocketITP 1.1 for PocketPC handheld devices will also create a configuration file that can be loaded into this camera, and is a full-fledged FTP server also (though it doesn't directly handle the configuration of the computer's wireless settings).

XP Home users in particular might find the combination of a PowerToy to handle the wireless configuration, and ITP for FTP server duties, to be a strong combination (hence our desire to see the PowerToy extended to support XP Home).

Connect soon with Windows Connect Now

At their booth at Photokina 2004, Microsoft will be demonstrating a technology that was released in Windows XP SP2. Called Windows Connect Now (WCN), its purpose is to make the connection of two or more wireless devices, including Wi-Fi access points, Wi-Fi capable printers and digital cameras with their companion Wi-Fi transmitters easier, less time-consuming, more goof-proof.

Using a Canon EOS-1D Mark II + WFT-E1 combo running beta firmware that adds WCN support, Microsoft intends to show WCN in action, configuring the computer, a wireless access point and the camera for wireless communication, and doing it mostly automatically. The process to be demonstrated has been described to us as this:

  • Start the WCN wizard from within Windows XP SP2. Like the PowerToy described above, some basic questions are asked, such as the name of the network to be created. Then, a WCN configuration file is written to removable media - in this case, a CompactFlash card.

  • Remove the card from the reader, insert it into the EOS-1D Mark II, wait until a light on the WFT-E1 transmitter blinks three times, then remove the card.

  • Place the CompactFlash card into a USB reader (that's not connected to the computer!), then insert that into the WCN-savvy Wi-Fi access point (at Photokina, it will be a new access point from D-Link). Wait for the three-light blink that indicates it too has been WCN-configured.

  • Then, complete the loop by inserting the CompactFlash card back into the reader connected to the computer. The configuration process on the PC is completed and a secure wireless network accessible only by these devices is created.

For other uses of WCN, including the establishing of a more traditional wireless network that might be composed of a printer, access point and computer, a USB key can be used to transport the configuration information around from device to device and back to the computer.

WCN, the stock version that's running in Windows XP SP2 and that will be demonstrated at the Microsoft booth, does not include the setting up of the FTP server. Microsoft, however, is encouraging WCN device makers, including camera companies, to create their own WCN wizard software that will pull from users the basic info needed both for setting up a secure wireless network and also other information to enable features specific to a brand or model of camera, including FTP setup information. The configuration file created by WCN is in XML, which means it should be readily extensible by a camera manufacturer.

Like the PowerToy, if this works as simply as Microsoft has outlined then it should be a real benefit to photographers on the Windows platform, especially if companies like Canon and Nikon take on the task of creating their own WCN wizard applications and updating cameras to be WCN-savvy.

I want my MTP

Windows Connect Now should make it easier for photographers to bring a digital SLR camera into a wireless network, especially if the camera makers embrace it. But if Microsoft and FotoNation have their way, the Next Big Thing in wireless connectivity for digital cameras and other devices will be driven by extensions to PTP, including PTP/IP, MTP and MTP/IP.

Letís begin at the beginning. PTP is short for Picture Transfer Protocol, and itís a standard that governs the communication between computer and digital camera over a wired connection. PTP support is built into most digital cameras with a USB port, as well as modern operating systems like Windows XP and Mac OS X. With PTP on both sides of the wired camera-computer link, itís possible for a computer to communicate with and transfer files from the camera, without the installation of additional drivers and anything other than minimal user-intervention the first time a PTP camera is connected to a PTP computer.

PTP/IP extends the functionality of PTP to digital cameras with built-in or accessory Wi-Fi transmitters, by adding wireless-specific extensions to the PTP protocol. PTP/IP, the brainchild of FotoNation, is an attempt to bring the same plug-and-play friendliness of wired PTP to the configuration and transfer of pictures wirelessly.

Nikon has already promised to support PTP/IP, starting with the D2X and WT-2/2a. This support should mean both a simpler camera-computer linkup process and the transfer of pictures without the need for an FTP server on the receiving computer. The goal is for wireless to just work, no fuss, no muss. Hereís hoping that will be the case.

Initially, PTP/IP will make its way into the Mac and Windows computers of D2X owners through the installation of PTP/IP drivers from Nikon. In other words, PTP/IP isnít yet a standard component of either of the two dominant operating systems. On the PC side anyway, this is expected to change when MTP and MTP/IP become a central part of the Windows experience.

MTP, short for Media Transfer Protocol, is being developed by Microsoft, and is already incorporated into Windows Media Player 10. Itís an offshoot of PTP, and contains all of PTPís capabilities. But it extends the protocol to devices other than digital cameras, including certain portable digital audio players.

A computer with MTP support would automatically be compatible with PTP cameras, since PTP is effectively a subset of MTP. A camera with full-fledged MTP inside, however, could take advantage of MTPís improvements over PTP, including much faster display of thumbnails when the cameraís memory card is browsed from the PC and quicker transfer of data to the computer as well.

Similarly, a PTP/IP-enabled camera would automatically be compatible with an MTP/IP-capable computer. An MTP/IP-enabled camera would also allow for quicker drawing of thumbnails over the wireless link and, presumably, other benefits too.

Microsoft has not established when or how MTP and MTP/IP will hit the streets for real. They will show off its potential, however, at the companyís booth at Photokina 2004 next week. Both an MTP/IP-enabled Nikon digital SLR and Nikon compact digital camera will be used to demonstrate the wireless connection and transmission process of this emerging protocol. Though the Nikon models are not identified in a Microsoft press release, itís a safe bet that the digital SLR will be a prototype D2X.

We havenít yet spoken with someone from Nikon to see what theyíre prepared to reveal about their MTP and MTP/IP plans in the medium term, though the company obviously has something cooking. Canonís position, as stated in a joint press release issued by the company and Microsoft this week, is that MTP/IP will be supported in ďfuture wireless digital cameras.Ē Whether future cameras include the upcoming EOS-1Ds Mark II and WFT-E1/WFT-E1A combo, or the EOS-1D Mark II and the EOS 20D with the pending firmware update for WFT-E1/WFT-E1A compatibility, is anyoneís guess.

The upcoming Wireless FTP Camera PowerToy, Windows Connect Now and the advent of PTP/IP and MTP/IP point to a smoother ride ahead for digital SLR photographers and their wireless transmitters. Equally interesting is that so much of this is being driven by Microsoft, which has not previously shown this level of interest in developing Windows workflow tools specifically for serious and pro digital photographers.

At Photokina 2004, Microsoft will also be demonstrating Photoshop and other image editing applications running in a beta version of Windows XP 64-bit Edition and Extensis Portfolio Server running on a Windows server machine. They will also be distributing case studies that examine the workflow of photographers Steve McCurry, Joynce Tenneson and Mathew Jordan Smith. These case studies will ultimately be made available for download fom the digital photography area of the Microsoft web site.

Photokina 2004 runs from September 28-October 3, 2004 in Cologne, Germany.

Thanks to Dave McLauchlan, Josh Weisberg, Wilf Russell and Gary Voth for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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