Betamax versus VHS in your browser

Everyone knows the story, even if, unlike me, they are not old enough to remember it: the video format VHS overcame the superior Betamax format to dominate the Mitt Romney laughing GIFhome video market in the 80s and 90s.

Of course, the claims that Beta was superior are rather tendentious but the fact that video producers stuck with a Beta format for their own tapes long after the rest of us switched to a VHS monoculture must say something.

Now, inside your browser, the same thing has happened. As is noted in today’s Guardian, the 1987-vintage GIF format refuses to die. These days you see far fewer static GIFs than even a few years ago (though they are still out there in large numbers) – JPEG and PNG dominate. But you’ll have to look very hard for an MNG (the ‘official’ PNG analogue of the animated GIF) or even APNGs, the unofficial but more widely used attempt to animate PNGs.

A few years ago I wrote a Perl PNG module – Image::Pngslimmer – which replicated many of the functions of the C libpng library, so I could use some of that in CGI code without having to switch from Perl to C and back again. Then – this was 2006 or so – PNG support was quite weak in browsers and GIFs were far more plentiful.

PNG is a superior format to GIF (especially for line drawings and similar – for general photographs JPEG is the superior choice, unless you truly demand a lossless format) and it is a good thing that it has edged GIF out in many places. But it seems we will be stuck with GIFs for many years yet.

More people getting it wrong about graphics formats

I subscribe to the Code Project mailing list. So every day I get an email with some links. Some stories are good (I started this blog in response to one). Some are very poor: I highlighted an earlier one about graphics formats like that.

And today I am going to do the same thing. Admittedly this one is not quite so poor. But it is still fundamentally wrong when it says

Portable Network Graphics
Image via Wikipedia

PNG is a lossless format. It is not. It may be lossless, and most PNGs out there are likely to be lossless, but stating that it is lossless a priori is just WRONG.

PNGs may be lossy – particularly if colour quantization is applied.

Furthermore PNGs are not magic machines that defy the third law of thermodynamics. If you have a lossy graphic – eg if your camera only produces compressed JPEGs then storing it as a PNG will not magic away the losses.

Horses for courses people: or, as we say in the trade, it’s a heuristic not an algorithm. There is not likely to be any simple answer to your question “what is the best format to use”: though in most cases JPEGs are the right format for (online) presentations of real world objects and PNGs are likely the best options for line drawings online (though maybe you will want to use SVG for that if they are generated programmatically).