HEIF – A New Image Format to Replace Them All [Technology Explained]

Have you ever wondered how the USB drive that you’ve just bought on Amazon could fit right into the USB slot on your computer? Or how the ticks of your second hand on your watch will be the same as the one on your friends’? Or how the document that you create on your tablet can be opened on your colleague’s computer? That and many other similar questions have one answer: standardization.

Almost every aspect of human creations are standardized to ensure compatibility. From language to time, from paper size to lamp bulb brightness, from shoe number to soap scent, and more. You can see the extreme example in the tech world where everything is standardized, including file format.

When we talk about the ultimate standard for the image file format, JPEG is one of the kings along with PNG and GIF, but all of them are about to get dethroned by an unknown newcomer called HEIF.

What is HEIF and what is so special about it?

JPEG is an old image file format that has been around since the 80s, more than a quarter of a century ago. That’s a very long time in the technology world. One of the reasons why it’s still widely used today is simply because there’s nothing better to replace it. Yet.

JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, and it’s a commonly used method of lossy compression for digital images, particularly for those images produced by digital photography. The degree of compression can be adjusted, allowing a selectable tradeoff between storage size and image quality. JPEG typically achieves 10:1 compression with little perceptible loss in image quality.

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The format was created to utilize the processing power of the computer available back then. And even though it has evolved to keep up with the pace of technology growth, JPEG has shown its age and can’t fit the needs of today’s users and fully utilize the current technological advances available.

There are efforts to introduce a better image format to replace JPEG. One that made the news was the introduction of BPG (Better Portable Graphic), a format based on a single video frame of the new HEVC video codec. It was developed by Fabrice Bellard, a celebrity software engineer who also created FFmpeg, a popular platform for media processing.

BPG has all the ingredients to replace JPEG as the standard image compression format. It’s open source, developed by a respected software engineer known as a “super programmer,” based on HVEC that is twice as efficient as the previous video compression format and supported by all major browsers. And despite gaining a comprehensive media coverage, including articles in Forbes, The Register, and DPReview, the lack of apparent marketing campaign or industry backing caused the format to fail in getting the traction it needs.

It turns out that replacing something that everybody is using for so long is not that easy. But if there’s one company that always tries to bring better standards to the masses, it’s Apple. Its efforts are not always successful, but many of them can put new perspectives into users’ minds, even though they’re always met with resistance at the beginning.

Some of us still remember how computers were identical to dull, dark boxes until the introduction of candy-colored iMacs and iBooks. Or how physical keypads were an inseparable part of a handphone until iPhone. No one talked about using a tablet as part of their daily life before the iPad. And remember how the world mocked Apple for ditching the standard floppy disk and optical drives? There are many other examples, and there will be more to come.

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On June 5th, 2017 at the WWDC keynote, Apple announced that it would adopt a new image standard called HEIF on iPhones and iPads running iOS 11. To the general masses, the announcement was lost among the noise of the new iPads, iMacs, HomePod, Augmented and Virtual Reality, and all the goodies that come with the soon-to-be-released iOS and macOS updates. But those who deal with images paid their attention. Given Apple’s track record in killing off old standards, this could mean the new era of image formats.

HEIF is short for High-Efficiency Image Format. It is an image “wrapper” just like a JPEG or a TIFF. This new “wrapper” comes with a new compression algorithm, or codec, known as HEVC, developed by MPEG. HEIF files can store a single HEVC video frame, and it is about 50% smaller than a JPEG file. HEIF can do that by using a more efficient compression codec.

Another advantage that HEIF has over JPEG is its ability to store images, video, image bursts, audio, and text, all synchronized together within its wrapping package. It gives both lossy and lossless compression options to users, and stores image editing features (like rotating, cropping, titles, and overlays) as separate parts of the files.

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In simpler human language, HEIF has all the ability of JPEG, GIF, PNG, and even MP4 format in a tiny file size package. Using the current standard image format, a 128GB iPhone can store around 50,000 photos. You get double the amount with HEIF. And as a bonus, the user will get non-destructive edits without having to store the original images like we do today.

Can HEIF replace all the other image formats or will it wither in obscurity? Being supported by Apple and millions of its loyal users gives HEIF an edge over other failed formats, but it doesn’t mean the road to glory is full of rainbows and unicorns either.

To start with, everything – and I really mean everything – has to be updated to support the new image format. We are talking about digital cameras, computers, email, phones, web browsers, televisions, storage, printing, and all the things that has used JPEG as its standard for the past twenty-five or more years.

There are also software applications that need to be updated. From the big names like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, Google Chrome, to the photo sharing websites like Flickr, 500px, Facebook, Google Photos. The list is endless.

And let’s not forget that HEIF is not the only format that aims to take the throne. There’s also WebP image compression codec from Google. They’ve been using it quietly across the Android and Chrome platforms. We are still waiting to see where their roadmap will take them.

For a new format to get traction, it will need a large group of users before it can get the attention of software developers and persuade them to issue the updates to support the new format. This is the downfall of BPG, but luckily HEIF gets Apple on its back.

Given all the advantages HEIF has over other image formats, I personally think that everyday users will accept it with open arms.

And to help make the transition smoother, there’s already an open source HEIF file viewer implementation from JavaScript known as “libde265.” Since Java is one of the most-used codes on the Web, we can expect web browsers’ support for HEIF sooner rather than later. And when they do, the pace will pick itself up. And maybe, optimizing images for the Web will be a thing of the past.

What do you think about HEIF and its future? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

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