Joel's post a couple of days ago reminded me of a conversation I had about a year ago with Michael Stokes, a PM in our group at the time dealing with color. Specifically, we were talking about how color profiles work and how scRGB makes the world a better place.
I'm going to do my best to explain this, but I'm simplifying some of it and I can't claim to be a color expert. There are many people out there who know much more about this than I do, but I don't think I've seen any body present this to the average programmer. It goes like this -- there is color data (similar to an 8 bit char) and there is the color profile that describes how to interpret that data (similar to a codepage). The combination of the color and the color profile give you everything you need, in theory, to get accurate color.
There is a simple standard color space called sRGB which is a formalization of the ad hoc "standard" that has developed over the years. It is a color space that most monitors and graphics cards support by default. In other words, if you send raw RGB data to today's graphics hardware, the thing you see on the screen will be within spitting distance of the sRGB standard. This is in some ways a parallel to the ASCII with text. What we end up with is a standard that works well if all you are interested in is showing something on a monitor and you don't care too much about the accuracy of the color. This is all good and fine as long as you aren't too picky about the color of the shirt you are buying from JCrew.com.
Things start to get complicated once you start talking about gamut. Any particular device that deals with color (camera, scanner, screen, printer, etc.) has a gamut. The gamut is the range of physical colors that the device can operate with. There are colors that you can see that your monitor cannot produce. Similarly, there are colors that your monitor can produce that your printer can't print. There are probably even colors that your printer can put on paper that your monitor can't display. In other words, there are physical limitations and characteristics built in to any device. Since profiles a color space, they too have a gamut.
The sad part here is that sRGB is defined around how computer display hardware happened to work. There are colors that fall outside of the definition of sRGB. In fact, there are lots of colors that fall outside of the sRGB gamut. My camera (a Canon D60) can capture colors that can't be described by sRGB. It is like trying to describe a sanskrit character with 7 bit ASCII. My printer (an Epson 1270) can print colors are also outside of sRGB. Since I'm in photography for artistic purposes, I'm a bit of a perfectionist and not happy with limiting the colors in my prints by what my monitor can and can't display.
The logical next step here is to redefine the color space so that we can represent colors that sRGB can't represent. Lots of people have done this. The most popular color space out there (outside of sRGB) would be AdobeRGB 98 that Adobe popularized via Photoshop. Reality is that if you define the gamut to be too narrow you end up excluding colors and if you expand the gamut too much you end with too few gradations in colors you care about. This makes your smooth blue sky look like an Aztec pyramid. Because there is a tradeoff here, everyone and their brother have created a color space to fit a particular need. The result is that 0xFF0000 (using web syntax) means different things depending on the color space that you are using to interpret it.
Sophisticated software both built into Windows (and Mac OS) and into photoshop does the translation between the data and your screen. Or from your data to your printer. Or from you data into a "working color space" and then into the color space of your printer. This color management software essentially manages mapping from one space to another. Oh yeah, and don't forget that converting from one space to another is a lossy operation. All is good and lightness, right?
Well, no. Just like 8 bit characters and codepages, it is all too easy to ignore this stuff and just hope for the best. Almost every consumer level device outputs sRGB, most printer drivers assume sRGB incoming and almost every picture on the web is authored to sRGB (unless it is authored on a Mac which uses a 1.8 gamma space instead of the 2.2 gamma as defined in sRGB). If most developers just stick their head in the sand and ignore it, then things will mostly work themselves out. If you take a photo that is encoded in AdobeRGB and interpret it as sRGB, things will mostly work -- it will just look pretty washed out.
Add to this the fact that right now it isn't clear what piece of software is supposed to translate form what space in to whatever other space and at what time and we have a mess on our hands. Your camera captures more data than can fit in to sRGB but it may throw that data away and store your photo in sRGB. Photoshop loads this up and throws a dialog that most users have no idea what to do with. When you print there are an array of choices in both Photoshop and the printer driver. To be honest, I do some of this stuff for a living and I've wasted a lot of paper trying to figure out what the right settings are.
The state of the color union is that most people have just given up and standardized on sRGB across the board. This is really a shame because we can do so much more. We are shortchanging ourselves. This is like asking the entire world to just learn English.
The way out is Unicode, err, scRGB. I'm honestly not sure what the 'sc' in scRGB stands for. scRGB defines a gamut that is much wider than anything you or I can see. All of the other custom color spaces that have been defined fit inside of scRGB. However, this comes at a price. If you were to take an image and encode it in scRGB at 8 bits per channel (bpc), your image would look like crap. The expanded gamut means that we need much more precision to avoid the color granularity problem described above. 8bpc isn't good enough. And you thought we would never need anything more than 16.7 million colors! The cost of unifying all of the various color spaces is 16bpc or even 32bpc. Sure it costs more, but your pictures are worth it, right? Jumping up to 16 or 32bpc may seem like a huge leap, but it probably isn't that big a deal in practice. Memory and disk space is cheap and this stuff can compress pretty well. Unicode was painful at one point but it is definitely worth it now. Beyond this, when persisting this stuff out, there are ways to encode scRGB data that recognizes that most of the extra precision isn't needed in many common cases. This is similar to the UTF-8 or UTF-16 encodings for UCS-4 (in unicode speak).
The benifits to this switch are huge. All of the color data that you might want to store can be represented in the scRGB model. Whereas in today's model converting to any particular color space could be a mistake, converting to scRGB is generally never the wrong thing to do. With the extended gamut you can be sure that you won't have to clamp or compress your colors and with the extra precision you mitigate the lossyness of the conversion. If the printer driver speaks scRGB it can do the best job it knows how to get that on to the paper.
scRGB is the Unicode of color.
For more detail, here is an (old) article on ExtremeTech on scRGB.
Update on April 30, 2005
This article has been in the top 3 results for "scRGB" on Google for quite a while. I was chatting with Michael Stokes (Color Architect at Microsoft) and he had some comments to add on the naming of scRGB:
The "sc" in "scRGB" is not defined by IEC, but the annex uses the term "specular component" and that is probably the closest thing to a true definition that IEC has provided. Historically it was called "sRGB-X" then "XsRGB" (but the marketing folks didn't like "excess" in the pronunciation) and then "sRGB-64" but that was too close to Nintendo 64 and finally "scRGB" but it is all the same thing.