March 7, 2021

HEIF Image Compression standard will speed up future ecommerce websites.

Dr Peter Mowforth

In amongst the deluge of technology news, every so often something comes along that has the potential to significantly impact the ecommerce industry. One such example is the new HEIF/HEIC image format. In this article we will discuss why data formats are such a big deal, exactly what they are, the chances of the new technology taking off and when it all might happen.

Why are image formats so important

The world is currently generating over 16 trillion Gigabytes of data each year (of which over 70% is in the form of images or videos). That number is growing exponentially - mostly because of the ease with which we can now acquire good quality photographs and movies using smartphones.While the size of the average webpage is 3MBytes that figure has been slowly rising. The main reason for this is to ensure that the visual appearance for those pages looks good on the latest high-resolution screens on phones, tablets and desktops.We all want our web pages to load instantly and to look wonderful once they have loaded. The challenge for ecommerce is that we want both - great looking pages loading instantly.

In search of a better image format

Because of the massive consequences resulting from even the smallest improvements in image/movie compression, every major digital company has, to some degree, been involved in looking to improve image compression. By ‘improve’ they mean some combination of a reduction in file size combined with an improvement in visual quality/appearance.Google has developed and already launched it’s own WebP format. Based loosely on the PNG format it claims to reduce .png or .jpg file sizes, on average, by around 25-30% with zero reduction in visual quality. Before every ecommerce business owner reformats all it’s images, be aware that this format can only be rendered through browsers such as Chrome and Opera. Unfortunately, browsers such as Safari, IE and Firefox offer no native WebP support. For commercial reasons, it’s unlikely that they ever will.A much more promising approach has come from the International Standards group originally responsible for the MPEG standard. This approach has been termed the High Efficiency Image File Fomat HEIF (pronounced Heef). Another variant of the HEIF format is called HEIC. The technique uses the interframe predictive coding of MPEG and applies it to 2D images. The result has been to demonstrate a 50% reduction in file size over PNG and JPG image compression for the same resulting quality. Importantly, HEIF is a general container that not only supports this new generation of image compression, but also includes ways to store collections or short sequences of images along with various codecs and image transformations.On 14th March 2018 Microsoft announced HEIF support for Windows 10. In parallel, Google announced that HEIF support will be built into their next smartphone operating system (Android P) while Apple are already pushing ahead with native HEIF support across all their premium devices. Anyone who has purchased a Samsung S9 or a new iPhone might have noticed that rather than the usual .jpg format, camera photos are now being stored in HEIF as default. Adobe is in the process of rolling out HEIF support across all it’s product range including photoshop.

Is HEIF going to be adopted as an industry standard

Standards get set either by decree or by the weight of adoption. On both counts, HEIF seems to be winning. Academic researchers have sung it’s praises, the format is now an ISO standard and the key giants of the data world are starting to adopt it. On top of these factors, there seems no compelling commercial reason not to use it and no commercial advantage in trying to create an alternative.

How long will it be before we are all using HEIF

Before we can all start to gain advantage of this new format, there is one final step that’s needed. That is browser support.At the moment I’m not aware of any mainstream browser supporting the new standard. The problem for web developers is that we are going to need to wait until at least around 95% + of web browsers that are in use by our potential customers are able to work with the format.So when should we switch over our websites to the new format? The switch-over point will take place when the ecommerce website developers calculate that the increased conversion rate offered by the new format will generate more sales than those that get lossed through use of the older browser technology. As always, decisions are simply a numbers game.Meanwhile anyone wanting to experiment with the new format and perform their own compression versus visual appearance tests can visit Rokka where a free tool is available.

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