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iOS 11 Photos – A New Image Format?

In the past few days since Apple’s keynote at WWDC June 5th, a bunch of articles have popped up around the web about a new image format coming to iOS. Indeed, Apple plans to fully adopt the HEIF image standard on iPhone and iPads running iOS 11. What is it, how does it work, why change everything? Keep reading…

What is HEIF?

HEIF is short for High Efficiency Image Format and is a new image “wrapper” just like a JPEG or a TIFF. With the new “wrapper” comes a new compression algorithm, or codec, known as HEVC. We know HEVC in the video world as H.265. HEVC was developed by MPEG, the group that developed H.264 for video, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 (.mp4), AVC, and a few others. What’s interesting here is that HEVC can compress video files and still images. HEIF files can store a single HEVC video frame. An HEIF file is about 50% smaller than a JPEG file.

Why is this good?

JPEG is a lossy file type. It’s been around the block for 25 years before modern cameras and software were being developed. For example, look around your house for a computer that’s more than 5 years old? Does it still work? Technology has been growing so fast that it’s about time for a new, more efficient compression codec.

HEIF is a step in the right direction toward innovation. It’s only going to open the doors to do more with our images. In some regards, it really acts like a “packaged” file type because it can store images, video, image bursts, audio, and text, all synchronized together.

HEIF File Benefits

  • Lossy and Lossless compression options (I generally prefer lossless, but file size can vary)
  • Still and Video in one file (notice how Apple Live Photos now are 2 files – a JPEG and an MP4)
  • It can also store image bursts, audio, and text that are synchronized with the images
  • It stores image editing features like rotating, cropping, titles, and overlays as separate parts of the file, and then renders them out when being viewed. It’s essentially storing non-destructive edits.
  • Its compression is really small – a 128gb iPhone can currently store around 50,000 photos…with HEIF, it can store around 100,000 photo

Why is this bad?

For the past 25 years or so, JPEG has been the image standard in digital cameras, computers, email, phones, web browsers, televisions, storage, printing, etc. So for the “first time in forever” or for the first time really in modern computing, software companies will need to update their software to add support for HEIF. Natively, they won’t display unless your software is upgraded. Both iOS 11 and new versions of Mac OS will undoubtedly support HEIF.

Starting in September, major software applications need to issue software updates like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, Microsoft Word and the Office Suite, On1 plugins, Perfectly Clear, Google Chrome, Firefox browser . . . the list is endless. That’s not even considering how photo sharing websites like Flickr, 500px, Facebook, Google Photos, heck…even Adobe Stock, Shutterfly, Walmart Photos. HEIF disrupts everything.

To be fair, JavaScript (some of the most-used code on the web) has an open-source implementation of the HEIF file viewer, known as “libde265”. This means that web browsers should be updated relatively quickly.

Are there other compression codecs I should know about?

We’ll be keeping a watchful eye on Google. A few years ago, Google developed an alternative image compression codec knows as WebP. They’ve been using it across Android and Chrome platforms, but it’s been working quietly in the background. Android devices still shoot JPEG files, not WebP. Given the rocky relationship they have with Apple, we may see a separation in compatibility. It’s not likely that Google will adopt HEIF because it’s being pushed so hard by Apple.

At the core, HEIF was developed by the MPEG standards committee. This group of people (way more intelligent than I am) is developing, testing, ratifying this new standard. It’s been tested, they know it works, and now it’s up to companies to start adopting it. Apple has one of, if not the largest, user base across similar hardware (unlike the Android platform) and can make a complete change like this. But there are two sides to this coin:

  1. HEIF needs a large group of people to start using it for software developers to be forced into updating their software for it
  2. Making such a huge move is going to be challenging and frustrating to people. Apple is forcing the change, not making it an option.

Apple sometimes thinks they’re innovating taking away a headphone jack from the iPhone in favor of a Lightning port, but making it so you can’t use the same headphones on their Mac laptops.

Only time will tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing. We don’t know how things will shake out or if camera manufacturers will even start adopting HEIF into their new products.

If you want a little more reading, JPEGMini’s BEAMR posted an article about HEIF nearly a year ago.

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