WebP image support, an 8-year saga

Richard Rabbat
Nov 22, 2018 · 3 min read

Browser innovation has always been at the core of the mission of people who believe in democratizing the web and making it more accessible. The web is the critical infrastructure that connects people and enables them to thrive economically. Imagine the power of Wikipedia and how it put the world’s information at our fingertips. Now think of non-profits that have educated generations of young people, including Khan Academy, my personal favorite.

When I was at MIT in 1994, I had used giflib to add image support to a new programming language AthenaMuse2, which became the inspiration of Java. GIF, released in 1987, was already showing its age. Fast forward to 2010, and it was clear as I was leading an effort to make the web faster, we needed something better than image formats that had been developed before the web had taken hold. Imagine all the innovation in text and video. The Mac had introduced everyone to beautiful typography and over the years, YouTube got generations of consumers looking at increasingly crisper and higher definition video. But when it came to images, that’s the lowest common denominator browsers were happy to support.

David Bowie in all the glory of pixels and limited color palette (Credits: Reddit)

Pascal Massimino and I set up to upend that status quo. I am immensely grateful that the Chrome leadership (Sundar ran product then and Linus headed engineering) supported our effort and we soon launched WebP with one more browser supporting the effort: Opera. Mozilla, the bastion of open-source, decided against the format. Our multiple iterations, which would quickly lead to a format superior to both JPEG and GIF, did not inspire the team.

Edge changed all that over the past two years. Microsoft has become a company that embraces open-source, which has propelled it to become the #2 cloud provider. When Edge looked at WebP, they received a huge amount of support and Edge moved WebP feature support as such:

Source: https://developer.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-edge/platform/status/webpimageformat/

Meanwhile, Mozilla had done all the work but did not release it for years. Hours after the Microsoft announcement, Mozilla finally agreed to ship WebP. It’s coming in Firefox 65 and the web can’t wait. I’m serious when I say that, because while browsers were just in a wait-and-see mode, companies embraced WebP wholeheartedly in apps. Facebook, Snapchat, Google naturally, Tencent, Netflix, Ali Baba and every company that depends on mobile for its success uses WebP in its app. It’s a sad situation where to be able to innovate, you have to do your own proprietary app development and the web is not that sandbox where you can try at new things. But things seem to be changing.

WebP logo (Credits: Google)

My favorite resource on the web, Wikipedia, now serves WebP. Mathias Schindler led that change over the many years and go it to the finish line. Wikipedia exemplifies the best in humanity and the fact that it embraces WebP is humbling.

I am hopeful that the change this fall ushers an era of much more open collaboration but more critically, brings back innovation to the web. Let’s try, fail at some things, succeed at many others and inspire generations of technologists and product managers to launch innovative ideas and products on the web first.

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