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Netflix to Mozilla: Give Us WebP

mozilla-webp-failNetflix has joined the ranks of marquee heavyhitter names that include Facebook and Wikipedia which, in a bid to save massive amounts of bandwidth and money and to improve user experience, is lobbying Mozilla to add native support in Firefox for WebP, the most powerful image format in the world, developed by Google. A prominent and venerable Netflix developer Gabriel Harrison stated the following publically to Mozilla Sunday evening:

I can confirm, being an employee of Netflix, that a massive adoption of WebP is underway internally. Many of the Netflix ready devices will be using WebP and there is a big movement to get it in use on the web site. Of course, this is being hindered by *some* browser vendors, but we are proceeding anyhow with the hopes to optimize for browsers that can support it. Early tests are very promising.

This announcement resuscitated Mozilla’s latest WebP bug thread, others dating back to 2011, and a firestorm of exchanges ensued upsetting my wife who demanded I put my phone on vibrate, including Flagfox developer and known WebP obstructionist Dave Garrett firing back against progress:

There is ALWAYS some new file format that some group is passionately demanding, and most of them are not worth bothering with. Attempts to improve JPEG have largely gone nowhere. There are multiple competing “new” image formats and WebP is just one of the latest. It probably has the best chance yet to actually go somewhere, but it’s still “yet another web format”.

WebP is an experimental file format made and pushed by one company. The request here is to permanently and forever add Google’s pet image format to Firefox and eventually the whole Internet. This is a much bigger deal than people treat it. How long did it take to transition from GIF to PNG? We’re still stuck with GIFs for animated crap for the foreseeable future. The people involved here worry about this way more than the people just requesting something less crappy than JPEGs for the hundredth time. They would really like to implement something that has everything they want and has been able to do it reliably for a while. They don’t want to jump in quickly to an experimental file format just because Google and Mozilla could get it out to a wide audience fast.

In a frantic attempt to extinguish what was a reawaking flamewar while perhaps trying to watch HBO’s Newsroom, the redoubtable Mozilla developer Benoit Jacob issued the following statement:

There are image codec specialists at Mozilla who are looking carefully at image codecs. They need time to carefully evaluate as many codecs as possible, using the right methodology, and not run into a pitfall (which there are many). The silence is just the result of nobody wanting to speak prematurely on such an important, high-profile subject. If you want to accelerate things, run your own comparisons, but at this stage, make sure that they are very careful, scientific comparisons — don’t bother saying “image format X is 30% smaller at equal quality” without making sure that you know what you mean by “equal quality” and that that is really the quality metric that matters for you. Complicated subject. I’m glad there are smarter people than me to take care of it, and that they are taking their time to do this right.

It seems that Firefox users and website developers alike have almost given up pleading with Mozilla to add WebP and have shifted instead to asking Mozilla just to state if they simply have zero intention to implement it or that they want to wait it out longer to see if WebP gains more traction versus JPEG XR and the like or if the codec will dramatically change if, for example, Google moves from VP8 to VP9 in WebM and takes WebP to VP9 as well, thus potentially causing a mess for Mozilla and the web at large were Mozilla to adopt it now.

To offer ourselves as an example, we already are taking advantage of WebP in spite of only 40% of visitors of a typical website currently having support for the format by using a system on our server called PageSpeed cow-stuck-3that automatically makes a WebP copy of any image we post and serves the WebP to folks using Chrome, Opera, Maxthon or an Android browser and the JPEG to those using the likes of IE, Safari and Firefox. While that saves us some bandwidth and our Chrome and Android visitors have a measurably better experience, were Firefox to get with the program, IE and Safari and the rest would likely follow suit sooner, resulting in much greater bandwidth savings and improved bounce rates and finally, once support is ubiquitous, we could switch entirely to WebP and delete the JPEGs, saving plenty of bandwidth and easing server load by not making it decide which image format to serve on the fly and to save it from having to crunch out copies of WebP dupes. We could implement a javascript decoder that would make WebPs work on all browsers, however that is a very inefficient means for browsers to decode and display the images.

My own view (1, 2, 3, 4) on this concern is that, as reflected in the recent well-composed summary of the Mozilla WebP bug drama by the accomplished academic Jan Gukelberger which you may read here, Mozilla’s caution with respect to WebP is that their failure to adopt it is yet another sandbag in their descending hot air balloon of Firefox market share that is hurting various segments of people including Firefox users who would stand to save bandwidth and experience faster page loads (mobile users especially), web developers who would like to provide a better user experience desperately, ISPs and CDNs who would like to save bandwidth and storage and finally Mozilla which presumably does not want to continue down the path of hemorrhaging market share to Google as users want the browser that embraces a faster web for everyone. Were Google to break Firefox’s WebP support by doing something along the lines of making a better WebP with a different codec, rather than waiting for that possibly never to happen implement the latest WebP now and make a new bug thread when something better arrives. That would be a headache, but that’s the cost of doing business in keeping up with the progress your competitors are making.

I hope that Netflix’s joining the fight, as the company is of course a heavyweight, will add a little more pressure to Mozilla to do the right thing. But I’m not holding my breath. I further hope that the acclaimed and influential CNET journalist Stephen Shankland, an avid follower of Mozilla bug threads, will run a piece on this latest development with Netflix to shine the light of public scrutiny onto this travesty of interminable and dumbfounding foot-dragging on the part of Mozilla.

Doug Simmons