Has the Successor to the JPEG Emerged?

January 19, 2018

By Greg Scoblete

As technologies go, the JPEG is ancient. It was originally released in 1992 and while it’s been updated and refined over the years, the format was always notoriously bad with graphics and text and is now increasingly strained as cameras capture greater dynamic range and motion clips, like Apple’s “Live Photos.”

Every few years, rival image compression formats have emerged to try to dethrone JPEG, with no luck. Even if it has its detractors, the JPEG is so universal that efforts to unseat it have never gained the necessary traction. (Exhibit A: Apple’s new HEIC format has had very little adoption outside of the Mac universe.)

But that may not be the case forever.

CNET’s Stephen Shankland reports on a new and very much embryonic effort to create a new format. The work is being spear-headed by an organization called the Alliance for Open Media, a group comprised of some major tech heavyweights, including Google, Mozilla, Adobe, Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft.

The Alliance was formed to craft a royalty-free alternative to HEVC, the new video compression format that’s being used to compress 4K video (HEVC not widely used in cameras just yet, really only Panasonic’s GH5/S). Obviously, if major companies like Netflix and Google don’t have to pay patent royalties to use a video compression technology, they’ll save millions of dollars.

According to Shankland, as the Alliance members have worked on their video compression technology to sidestep HEVC (a codec called AV1) they’ve invariably been making progress on still image compression too–enough to raise the prospect that the group could devise a superior compression format to JPEG.

An AV1-based photo compression codec promises a few advantages to the JPEG, Shankland writes. For one, it will be lossless, will handle graphical elements better, will have a higher dynamic range and will support motion images .

Of course, superior and commercially viable are two different things. On the video side, there have been multiple attempts to side-step so-called “patent encumbered” compression codecs like MPEG-4/H.264, but those alternative formats tend to be used only by the companies that champion them, even if they’re giants like Google.

Still, Shankland reports that the early tests of the AV1-photo format showed a 15-percent data savings. For websites that host billions of images, that’s a tremendous gain. You can see some early test results of AV1 vs. JPEGs here.