Embracing the new.

Friday, February 7th, 2020

You may know that most of the smartphones and other digital cameras out there take a picture in a format called JPEG. It’s one of a couple of predominant file formats—the way the ones and the zeroes representing a picture are written to and read from hard disks (and flash drives, and floppies, and are sent from one place in our networked world to another.)


Dogcow (moof!), pixels by Susan Kare.

People—the folks charged with making operating system and application software better and better—have constantly tried to come up with better solutions for files than JPEGs and GIFs and even the more professional, almost uncompressed PNG and TIFF formats. These, by the way, are called bitmap file formats, where basically every pixel can be different…a recording of the real world. Vector file formats are another thing entirely. Don’t get me started.

But bitmaps, the stuff of photos. There are so many of them out there now.

They’ve put new proposals our for possible embrace and elevation to the level of “a standard”: ever hear of JPEG2000? I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t. DjVu files? MNGs? Yeegads.

So I spent some time today as part of my continuing education as a designer reading about FLIF—the Free Lossless Image Format. And in so doing also skimmed through stuff on JPEG XL, the latest from the JPEG people. Oh yeah, that’s an acronym too. The Joint Photographic Experts Group started work in 1983 that led to the ubiquitous JPEG format. Seriously. It’s everywhere. Most of the visual stuff you see on a web page is JPEG. And when you compress it even a medium amount, you see these undesirable compression artifacts, the so-called “mosquito noise” that makes a heavily compressed JPEG look like crap.

The thing about a standard is…you can’t just declare it by imperial fiat. (Seriously, Mr. President, don’t even try.) You have to get it out there and convince a critical mass of developers and users and browser manufacturers and camera manufacturers to embrace it. And as some formats evolved, they were entangled with patents and royalties and other means of turning intellectual property into money for…well, someone.

That’s why Apple’s choice of HEIF/HEIC, which has been defined and embraced for four or five years now, was such a big deal. It’s easy for them to declare that all their latest cameras (which will sell in the millions) will use it (in addition to JPEG), and when files created with it are something like 50% smaller than JPEG for the same quality, it’s not a hard decision.

So people who work with images (and moving images, again, a whole other kettle of fish) these days have to keep up with the new types of files, and stay familiar with how one reads, writes, and processes these throughout all steps of a modern workflow.

So a day like today for me was a lot of this kind of reading. Just trying to keep up. Do I get what they’re doing? Can I open a file created in one of these formats? Can I create one? Can I see the visual difference…the color reproduction, sharpness, and presence or absence of artifacts? Am I missing something?

Do I have a horse in this race? Or a dogcow?