Promising web file formats that never took off
The World Wide Web has promised a lot over the years. Thus far, some of those promises have been fulfilled, but there have also been disappointments. One area that I feel has been consistently disappointing in recent years is the promise of newer, more powerful, and more useful file formats. I’ll take a look at three of these: SVG, JPEG 2000, and MNG, below.
SVG stands for Scalable Vector Graphics, an open standard file format which has been in development by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) since the late 1990s. When SVG first started out, many companies were enthusiastically behind it, including Adobe, Apple, Corel, IBM, Macromedia, and Microsoft. Since then, enthusiasm has diminished, although SVG is still an active project with the W3C.
SVG offered (and should it survive, still offers) quite a bit to web designers and developers. The main purpose of SVG was to provide an open standard file format for placing vector images on the Web. As you may know, vector images, created in programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw, are usually converted to bitmap formats like GIF, JPG, or PNG, before being placed on the Web. The problem here is that bitmap images usually have much larger file sizes than their vector counterparts. Also, vector images are described on the file format level as a series of lines, shapes, colors, and coordinates. As such, they can be scaled to practically any size, a feature that’s lost once the vector image is converted to bitmap format.
Perhaps the best advantage of SVG is that it uses text-based XML to describe images. Since the entire SVG file can be accessed via XML, animation and scripting are possible, and are a part of the SVG standard. If you think this all sounds something like the original intent of Macromedia/Adobe Flash, you’re right: Flash was originally designed as a proprietary type of SVG, designed for animating vector graphics. Personally, I feel an open standard such as SVG would be much better for all of us, but the format has never matured to its full potential.
The main hindrance to SVG’s adoption is browser support: Browsers such as Firefox do not offer complete SVG support, and Internet Explorer offers no SVG support whatsoever. This Wikipedia table and this Codedread table provide excellent visuals showing why we still can’t reliably use SVG in our websites.
MNG, which stands for Multiple image Network Graphics, was created by many of the same developers who created the PNG file format. MNG was originally thought of as an animation format for PNG images, although many additional features were added as the format matured. The MNG 1.0 specification was officially released on 31 January 2001.
On the surface, MNG may sound like simple animation or video, but it’s actually much more. Objects, or “Sprites” inside a MNG file can copied or moved at later points in the animation, making MNG much more flexible than traditional animation. For example, if you wanted to repeat a certain sequence of images several times in a video, the sequence would have to be added to the video at numerous locations. Using MNG, the sequence would only have to be included once. It could then be told when the MNG file is built, to repeat at certain points in the playback. This could result in significantly smaller file sizes.
MNG also includes other features, including the ability to use enhanced lossless compression, and the ability to create JPGs with an alpha transparency channel.
As you may have guessed, the main concern with MNG images is a lack of support in major browsers.
JPEG 2000 was created by The JPEG Committee as a modern replacement for its JPG file format. JPEG 2000 offers enhanced compression versus traditional JPG, but the main advantage of JPEG 2000 is its features.
The current JPG format compresses information into what can be visualized as square blocks of data. The blocks are then stored sequentially from top left to bottom right, to create an image. However, JPEG 200 uses wavelet compression to store images as a stream of information. It’s the stream of information concept that opens up many possibilities.
For example, it could be possible to click your mouse on a portion of an image, and zoom into a more detailed look at the image. The zooming would not be performed using the artificial software-styled zoom that we currently see used in photo editors and browser plugins. It would be real zoom, providing the additional detail via image data streaming in at a higher resolution. The multiple resolution concept could also make it possible for a JPEG to stream in at a default resolution, such as 96 dpi for standard use on a Website Should you need additional resolution, for example, to print the image, the stream could be allowed to continue until it provides 300 dpi of data, which would be appropriate for printing.
Unfortunately, we still haven’t seen a real look at JPEG 2000 in action, for the usual reason: it’s been poorly implemented by browser manufacturers. For example, a Mozilla Bug Report dated 2000-04-19 and updated on 2009-11-25, shows “Support the jpeg2000 (jp2k) format” as assigned to “nobody”. The most recent “Comparison of Web Browsers” at Wikipedia shows a near complete lack of support for JPEG 2000.
There are several factors involved in the lack of browser support for these file formats. Much of the problem starts with Internet Explorer. If the latest version of IE does not support a given feature, manufacturers of other browsers must decide if it’s worth including the feature in their own browser. Also, competing methods of delivering files, such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, are backed by corporate resources that simply do not exist for technologies which aren’t owned by anyone. In the end, web designers and developers have been left with less open standard resources, which is never the way we want to see things work out.
About the author:
Anthony Celeste is a technical writer, multimedia developer, and Windows programmer. Anthony wrote about color theory and web design in “Corel DRAW 10: The Official Guide”, and covered animation and special effects in “Ulead PhotoImpact 7: The Official Guide”.