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The battle of the photo format

Hidden deep inside Apple’s WWDC 17 was an announcement that made little waves but that might have great repercussion: In their OS11 release, the Cupertino company plans to store images using their new HEIF format rather the almighty JPEG. The reason? HEIF compression takes half the space of the JPEG compression, suddenly doubling storage for photos.

What is HEIF?

HEIF is short for High-Efficiency Image Format. It was created by MPEG, the committee in charge of all standard video compression formats ( MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264/AVC, HEVC/H.265).  An HEIF file is one image of an HEVC video frame. According to Dror Gill, the HEIF format is very flexible: “It can store both single images and image sequences (photo bursts or video), it can store images and video that were captured simultaneously, and it can also store audio and text which are synchronized with the image sequences.”

For photographers, it does even more: It supports both lossy and lossless compression, conserving the quality of the original image and it can store image editing operations in a sidecar file. The original file remains untouched and all editing appears only when the file is called for display. In other words, it’s a non-destructive format. And yes, an HEIF file can be rendered as a JPEG file easily if needed.

Why is it a big deal?

Ever since the launch of the iPhone, anything Apple does in the field of photography has a huge impact. Thanks partly to large very photo enthusiastic user base thanks to a very well crafted marketing campaign. But also, If Flickr is any indication, Apple’s iPhones are responsible for 42% of all images taken ( DSLR included). For 2017, that is an estimated: 504 billion photos ( total number of images expected to be taken in 2017 is 1,2 trillion). Even if most will not be taken on an OS11 powered iPhone, a significant amount will. This will automatically convert a wide range of photo enthusiasts to a new format which, in all prediction, will please them.  Once converted, they will want to convert others.

Obviously, Apple is taking steps to make all its owned products and software compatible. As well, it is certainly having major partners like Adobe play nice with HEIF. This will instantly make the format more widely adopted with ease by a large audience heavily involved in the creation and propagation of photos, forcing the rest of the world to take notice.

But Apple is not alone.

Google has been promoting its own format, webP ( and WebM for video) for 6 years now. It is also a both a lossy and lossless compression. More concerned about image size than quality, WebP ‘s focus has been mostly on easing the load of web pages, in turn, receiving criticism on the quality of the compressed files. However, unlike HEIF, it is open source and since still in active development, should see the quality improve. Google, like Apple, has made most of its applications WebP friendly ( including Chrome). It has not yet made it Android’s default compression photo format. With Apple’s latest move, that might soon change.

HEIF vs JPEG comparison ©Nokia
HEIF vs JPEG comparison ©Nokia
The battlefield.

The battleground for photos is online and this battleground is own by web browsers. If the browser doesn’t support the format then there is little to no chance that it will ever be widely adopted. Google’s Chrome currently owns 60% of the market, with Explorer far behind at 17% and Apple’s Safari at about 4%. Needless to say that Google could, in theory, block access to HEIF’s format by refusing to support it. However, it would not be game over. If a Facebook, for example, decided to play along, as it did already with the Apple Live format, HEIF could succeed without Google’s help. Furthermore, Apple has a lot of influence on mobile app developers. If widely adopted by the app market, it will no longer matter if it is supported by Chrome.

What’s at stake?

It is not like any company stands to benefit financially from any format as one is a standard and the other open source. In fact, if anyone can win it is the consumer: Better quality photos at a faster download speed. At a time when cameras sensors are upping their megapixels, it can only be welcomed. The  JPEG format, for all its glory, needs to be retired. It is clumsy, destructive and antiquated. The real issue here is how to deal with the trillions and trillions of images already in JPEG format. How best to manage the transition so that they can be read in a century from now, if not longer.  It an emotional issue more than a financial one, as families have precious memories stored in JPEG they would like they great grandchildren to enjoy.

So, while a new photo format is definitely a plus for everyone, regardless of which one ends up becoming the standard, the real issue lies in developing a transition that is respectful of consumers’ ( and businesses) legacy. And for the time being, neither Apple nor Google have clearly formulated their plans.

 

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo based companies with already two successful exits.

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