How Long Can the JPEG Survive?

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As technologies go, JPEG image compression is ancient. It was originally released in 1992 and while it’s been updated and refined over the years, the format is showing its age. JPEG compression has always struggled when compressing graphics and text and is now increasingly strained as cameras capture greater dynamic range and motion clips, like Apple’s “Live Photos.”

The weaknesses of the format have naturally led to several alternatives, each promising to shore up the JPEG’s sundry liabilities. There’s the PNG, which excels at compressing graphics and text; there’s TIF, which retains higher image quality through a lossless compression scheme; and the venerable GIF, which packages motion elements like those memes that make social media so entertaining (admit it, you like them too). While many of these rivals have thrived in their niches, none have dethroned the JPEG’s universality and status as the reigning image compression format.

But there are two forces at work that could, finally, push the JPEG off its mantle.

The first is its inefficiency relative to other, new compression formats. Efficiency has become more important as photography has shifted from traditional cameras, where memory is cheap and easily replaceable, to smartphones, where (at least for iOS devices), it’s much less so. But efficiency is vastly more important for companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and others who are serving as repositories for a vast and growing archive of digital images.

That’s where the efforts of the Alliance for Open Media (AOM) come in. While the Alliance was ostensibly formed to craft an alternative to HEVC, CNET reports that it has been making progress on still image compression, too–enough to raise the prospect that the group could devise a superior compression format to JPEG. While it’s still in its early days, the Alliance’s still image compression technology has reportedly achieved a 15 percent improvement in file size–that’s a negligible gain for consumers but a potentially huge bandwidth and storage savings for the tech giants sitting on mountains of files. Google, an Alliance member, is also independently exploring ways to use machine learning to coax out smaller photo files without sacrificing quality.

The second factor nudging the JPEG toward the exit, noted above, is the increasing use of motion and still images in a single file. To deliver its Live Photos short motion clips, Apple turned to an entirely new still image format, HEIC, which is better optimized to the unique demands of merging still and moving elements. But Apple chose to use HEIC more broadly, to compress traditional still images as well. HEIC has very little traction outside of the Apple universe, but given the company’s market share, a growing number of desktop photo applications are offering support for HEIC.

As the prospect of a JPEG replacement begins to appear on the horizon, it’s worth noting that the JPEG may  never disappear–certainly not in our lifetime and likely not for generations to come. Devices will eventually stop encoding JPEGs in favor of whatever image format wins the day, but the sheer number of images encoded as a JPEG (a number easily in the several trillions) will ensure that support for JPEG decoding will endure. There are simply too many photos encoded in JPEGs to ignore.

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