Recently endorsed by Apple, HEIF could be coming for JPEG

HEIF versus JPEG: The Future of Images on the Web

The advent of the HEIF is the product of a seismic shift occurring in photography.  No longer do you have to own a DSLR camera to capture high-resolution photos or expensive image editing software to create and share incredible art. The Android and iOS ecosystems are enabling photographers to experiment both within and across photographic styles, all while providing the end-to-end platform to create, edit, and share.


At Filestack we have been helping photographers and photography companies with image ingestion, processing, and delivery since 2011. On-line print is one of the largest verticals Filestack serves. Customers lean on us for cloud integrations — S3, Dropbox, Google Photos, Azure — as well as image transformations such as crop, rotate, resize, and compression. Naturally Apple’s endorsement of HEIF at WWDC 2017 caught our attention and got us thinking about what you need to know to get ahead of the curve.


There’s a lot to know about Apple’s announcement, so let’s just highlight some things you need to know about how HEIF might affect your workflow.


Most important topic first, how do you pronounce HEIF?


Apple insiders say, “heef”, but I’ve also heard/seen “hife”, “hey-f”, “heff”, “he-if.”  Right now, I don’t know what the right answer is.  It looks like we might have another GIF internet battle on our hands. I take this as a sign of acceptance, so we’ll see how this pans out over the next few months.


New acronyms HEVC, HEIF, HEIC…what does it all mean?


  1. High Efficiency Video Compression (HEVC):  Also known as H.265 and MPEG-H Part 2, is a video compression standard.  HEVC offers about double the data compression ratio at the same level of video quality.


  1.  High Efficiency Image Format (HEIF):  based on HEVC format, is a file format for individual images and image sequences.


  1. High Efficiency Image Container (HEIC): Technically, not a “format” but rather a container for images and audio. HEIC is the name Apple has chosen for the new HEIF standard.  Apple outlined their use case is to store still images encoded with the HVEC video format.


Where is it supported?


As discussed, HEIC is the new Apple default image format starting at iOS 11 for mobile devices and MacOS High Sierra.  Google Photos and Dropbox already support the HEIC, but Microsoft has been slow to adopt the new format.  HEIC is not universally accepted, so for now if you’re sharing a file with a service, platform, or browser that doesn’t provide native support, it will be converted to JPEG to ensure you’re still able to use the image.


HEIC, the new proprietary Apple format?


One misconception is HEIF, HEIC, etc, is owned by Apple.  This is untrue.  HEIC is the file format name Apple has chosen for HEIF standard.  HEVC was developed by the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC) in collaboration with Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG).


Are “.heif” file extensions going to start popping up on my devices?


If you are exclusively using Apple devices, then yes, files will be named “samplephoto.heic.”  Yes, HEIC, not HEIF.  HEIF can accommodate images created with a variety of technologies — including JPEG and HEVC. HEIF is intentionally being left open-ended so it can include future technologies and standards. There’s no doubt you’ll see “.heif” and “.heic” formats over time, but the “.heic” file extension is the only one Apple will create for photos which indicates it passed through an HEVC encoder.


Is HEIF going to kill JPEG?


While there are many pros to HEIF, JPEG has been around for over 25 years. HEIF is not going to magically go back in time and turn all JPEGS to HEIF.  Converting photos from a lossy compression format like JPEG would degrade the images.  JPEG will surely maintain its image king status (for now), but it is interesting to see Apple back HEIF. As I mentioned before, on iOS 11+ and MacOS High Sierra, all images will default to HEIF (HEIC).  This will cause a major push for HEIF. Will that alone be enough to force global adoption? New technology adoption is hard, but the reach of the Apple ecosystem and their deep pockets is an endorsement that will carry the HEIF a long way.


What’s so great about HEIF?


The biggest benefit by far is compression. Early tests have shown HEIF images are half the size of their JPEG counterparts and are also higher quality. Less space taken up on your phone or computer, along with faster upload and download times are good reasons to be excited.  This is welcome news to every person that has ever wrestled with phone or computer storage constraints.  Archiving old photos and deleting rarely used apps will still remain primary methods of freeing up space, but now hopefully those stints will be fewer and far between.


HEIF’s ability to function as a “container of images” and also handle audio and text make it a powerful tool for advanced imagery. With native transparency support, and image color up to 16-bits (versus JPEG 8-bit), professional photographers and iPhoneographers alike will benefit  from having pro-quality picture capturing and editing in the palm of their hand.  Speaking of editing, HEIF images can be rotated and cropped without resaving, another major perk that will save time and space.


What are the new Internet media types?


As you start to work with these images in your applications, here’s the short list on new mimetypes to keep track of:


  1. image/heif
  2. image/heic
  3. image/heif-sequence
  4. image/heic-sequence


This all sounds great, surely there is some bad news


While being the default format for all *new* images created on iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra, there are still some major barriers to adoption.  For one, Safari 11 is the only browser that currently supports HEIF.  Apple is handling the encoding and decoding using hardware, and it appears there are very few, if any, software based solutions due to the computational complexity.  Nokia has released a HEIF JS library that can help ease HEIF support into your applications regardless of browser. Another barrier is Adobe. The world’s largest purveyor of image editing software, and their flagship product Photoshop is not currently offering support.  


Getting traction for any new format is very difficult, no matter who is backing it.  Microsoft made some significant updates to JPEG with the JPEG XR format, but never received significant adoption.  WebP, a format popularized by Google is fairly common on the web, but not used much elsewhere.  It’s anyone’s guess to what is going to happen with HEIF/HEIC, but I personally think it’s a safe bet to expect to see more HEIC in your future.  Whether it is you personally, or your end-users, the HEIC format is going to be prevalent in your apps and storage buckets, so knowing what it is, how to work with it, and how to optimize it will be key to your data strategy in the near future.


The Filestack Take


We are monitoring the uptake and adoption of HEIC, especially now that iOS 11 has officially launched.  For now there is no change in how our service handles your images.  If you upload a HEIC image to us today it will be converted to JPEG and there are no differences in how you manage your files or FileLinks.  Our engineering team is deeply engaged with various communities and our customers as we build out our capability to natively handle HEIC files.  Be on the lookout for more updates as we continue to evolve our platform to meet the evolving needs of our customers.  For the latest updates,  you can create a free account which will automatically subscribe you to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, or keep checking back here for new product enhancements and announcements!  


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