SVG stands for Scalable Vector Graphics, an XML grammar for stylable graphics, usable as an XML Namespace.
To be scalable means to increase or decrease uniformly. In terms of graphics, scalable means not being limited to a single, fixed, pixel size. On the Web, scalable means that that a particular technology can grow to a large number of files, a large number of users, a wide variety of applications. SVG, being a graphics technology for the Web, is scalable in both senses of the word.
SVG graphics are scalable to different display resolutions, so that for example printed output uses the full resolution of the printer and can be displayed at the same size on screens of different resolutions. The same SVG graphic can be placed at different sizes on the same Web page, and re-used at different sizes on different pages. SVG graphics can be magnified to see fine detail, or to aid those with low vision.
SVG graphics are scalable because they can be referenced or included inside other SVG graphics, allowing a complex illustration to be built up in parts, perhaps by several people. The symbol, marker and font capabilities promote re-use of graphical components, maximise the advantages of HTTP caching and avoid the need for a centralised registry of approved symbols.
Vector graphics contain geometric objects such as lines and curves. This gives greater flexibility compared to raster-only formats (such as PNG and JPEG) which have to store information for every pixel of the graphic. Typically, vector formats can also integrate raster images and can combine them with vector information such as clipping paths to produce a complete illustration; SVG is no exception.
Since all modern displays are raster-oriented, the difference between raster-only and vector graphics comes down to where they are rasterized; client side in the case of vector graphics, as opposed to already rasterized on the server. SVG gives control over the rasterisation process, for example to allow anti-aliased artwork without the ugly aliasing typical of low quality vector implementations. SVG also provides client-side raster filter effects, so that moving to a vector format does not mean the loss of popular effects such as soft drop shadows.
Most existing XML grammars represent either textual information, or represent raw data such as financial information. They typically provide only rudimentary graphical capabilities, often less capable than the HTML 'img' element. SVG fills a gap in the market by providing a rich, structured description of vector and mixed vector/raster graphics; it can be used standalone, or as an XML namespace with other grammars.
XML, a W3C Recommendation for structured information exchange, has become extremely popular and is both widely and reliably implemented. By being written in XML, SVG builds on this strong foundation and gains many advantages such as a sound basis for internationalisation, powerful structuring capability, an object model, and so on. By building on existing, cleanly-implemented specifications, XML-based grammars are open to implementation without a huge reverse engineering effort.
It is certainly useful to have a standalone, SVG-only viewer. But SVG is also intended to be used as one component in a multi-namespace XML application. This multiplies the power of each of the namespaces used, to allow innovative new content to be created. For example, SVG graphics may be included in a document which uses any text-oriented XML namespace - including XHTML. A scientific document, for example, might also use MathML [MATHML] for mathematics in the document. The combination of SVG and SMIL leads to interesting, time based, graphically rich presentations.
SVG is a good, general-purpose component for any multi-namespace grammar that needs to use graphics.
The advantages of style sheets in terms of presentational control, flexibility, faster download and improved maintenance are now generally accepted, certainly for use with text. SVG extends this control to the realm of graphics.
The combination of scripting, DOM and CSS is often termed "Dynamic HTML" and is widely used for animation, interactivity and presentational effects. SVG allows the same script-based manipulation of the document tree and the style sheet.
With any XML grammar, consideration has to be given to what exactly is being modelled. For textual formats, modelling is typically at the level of paragraphs and phrases, rather than individual nouns, adverbs, or phonemes. Similarly, SVG models graphics at the level of graphical objects rather than individual points.
SVG provides a general path element, which can be used to create a huge variety of graphical objects, and also provides common geometric objects such as rectangles and ellipses. These are convenient for hand coding and may be used in the same ways as the more general path element. SVG provides fine control over the coordinate system in which graphical objects are defined and the transformations that will be applied during rendering.
It would have been possible to define some standard symbols that SVG would provide. But which ones? There would always be additional symbols for electronics, cartography, flowcharts, etc., that people would need that were not provided until the "next version". SVG allows users to create, re-use and share their own symbols without requiring a centralised registry. Communities of users can create and refine the symbols that they need, without having to ask a committee. Designers can be sure exactly of the graphical appearance of the symbols they use and not have to worry about unsupported symbols.
Symbols may be used at different sizes and orientations, and can be restyled to fit in with the rest of the graphical composition.
Many existing Web graphics use the filtering operations found in paint packages to create blurs, shadows, lighting effects and so on. With the client-side rasterisation used with vector formats, such effects might be thought impossible. SVG allows the declarative specification of filters, either singly or in combination, which can be applied on the client side when the SVG is rendered. These are specified in such a way that the graphics are still scalable and displayable at different resolutions.
Graphically rich material is often highly dependent on the particular font used and the exact spacing of the glyphs. In many cases, designers convert text to outlines to avoid any font substitution problems. This means that the original text is not present and thus searchability and accessibility suffer. In response to feedback from designers, SVG includes font elements so that both text and graphical appearance are preserved.
Animation can be produced via script-based manipulation of the document, but scripts are difficult to edit and interchange between authoring tools is harder. Again in response to feedback from the design community, SVG includes declarative animation elements which were designed collaboratively by the SVG and SYMM working groups. This allows the animated effects common in existing Web graphics to be expressed in SVG.