Google speeds WebP image format, brings animation support to Chrome

Other browser makers are unmoved by file-size advantages of the image format, but Google is pressing ahead. And it's saving terabytes of network usage a day on its own sites.

Stephen Konig, a Google product manager, discusses the WebP image format at Google I/O 2013.
Stephen Konig, a Google product manager, discusses the WebP image format at Google I/O 2013. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google has built a new version of its WebP software into Chrome to let browsers display its image format 25 percent faster, the company said Friday.

The better-performance, new libwebp 0.4.0 is part of Google's general effort to speed up the Web, and the new software also uses less memory and fixes an issue that had blocked Google from supporting animated WebP images. The updated WebP support is built into the version of Chrome that's currently in beta.

Animated GIF images, popular on sites such as Tumblr and Imgur, are the last remaining holdout for the elderly Graphics Interchange Format, which otherwise has largely been replaced by PNG (Portable Network Graphics) and JPEG. Google argues WebP can replace all three image formats, but has yet to persuade other browser makers to support WebP, despite some urging from sites such as Facebook and Netflix.

Google argues that WebP reduces file sizes compared with JPEG, but the WebP improvement hasn't been dramatic enough to persuade Mozilla, which is concentrating on squeezing a little more life out of JPEG. Even if WebP or some alternative catches on, countless JPEGs will live on the Web, and Mozilla is leery of introducing a requirement to support another file format for perpetuity.

One very popular feature combines two aspects of JPEG and PNG: JPEG's lossy compression, which can significantly reduce file sizes by throwing away data in original images, and PNG's alpha transparency, which lets a graphic designer designate portions of an image as transparent. The latter is very handy when overlapping images such as icons atop a background.

WebP also can operate in a lossless mode that works where PNG is more common today, for example in corporate logos on the Web. Google uses WebP to replace PNG in this context on its Google Play site, a move that lopped off a third of file sizes.

Chrome logo

Google also said it's moving to WebP for YouTube thumbnail images, showing yet again how much influence it can have on the Web's future by controlling both a major browser and major properties on the Web.

"All the rollouts within Google combined have raised our aggregate data transfer savings tally to tens of terabytes every day," Husain Bengali, a product manager and WebP optimizer at Google, said in a blog post Friday. "For users, this translates into faster page load times and fewer bytes counted against metered data plans."

The WebP debate has been very contentious for Mozilla. Ardent fans, distressed at Firefox's continuing lack of support, have urged Mozilla to support WebP on the Firefox bug-tracker. After 193 comments, Mozilla restricted commenting privileges on Wednesday and tried to move the discussion to a mailing list.

 

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