What the heck is a WebP file? It can be hard to keep track of every image format. Most people are familiar enough with JPEG, PNG, and GIF that we don’t even have to write out their full names. But what of High Efficiency Image Container (HEIC) files? How about RAW images that seem to have as many different extensions as there are camera manufacturers? And what is a WebP file again?
We can answer that last one. Google introduced WebP as “a new image format for the Web” in 2010 with intent to “significantly reduce the byte size of photos on the web, allowing web sites [sic] to load faster than before,” when they relied on image formats “established over a decade ago.” (That's a complaint that seems funny now that WebP itself has been around for 10-plus years.)
WebP’s Introduction and Spread
Google was the first to support WebP via the Chromium open source project at the heart of its Chrome browser. It took a while for other companies to embrace the format--Apple didn’t officially support WebP in Safari until the release of iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur last year--but now every major browser should be able to view WebP images without any difficulty.
WebP’s spread to other software also took a while. Consider a few popular image editing apps: GIMP added native support for the format in 2018, Paint.NET introduced WebP support in 2019, and Pixelmator started to support the format in 2020. Many people simply couldn’t manage WebP files outside the browser until nearly a decade after Google announced the format. So it's not exactly surprising if you're just encountering the format now.
There’s a notable app missing from that list, however, and it’s PhotoShop. The leading tool for creative professionals still doesn’t offer native WebP support; PhotoShop users have to rely on a plugin called WebPShop that Google released in 2019. That shouldn’t be difficult, and many PhotoShop users are no strangers to plugins, but it’s still a blow to WebP’s popularity.
Benefits of WebP
We’ve already established that Google created WebP to help image-heavy websites load faster. The format accomplishes that goal by offering 25-34% greater compression than JPEG files, according to one Google study, without sacrificing visual quality. That alone would give website operators a good reason to choose WebP over JPEG, but that’s not all the format has to offer.
WebP supports lossy images similar to JPEGs, but it can also be used for lossless images, and support for the alpha channel means it can offer similar transparency to PNGs. The format can also be used to present animations, much like GIFs. Google claims animated WebP files have several advantages over GIFs, too, including 19% (lossless) to 64% (lossy) smaller file sizes.
All of this means that in some cases the format offers advantages over existing formats by bringing similar image quality with much smaller file sizes; in others it offers more advanced technology. Google effectively created a triple threat, which means people don’t have to manage multiple image file formats for their websites, especially if they want to prioritize load times.
Drawbacks of WebP
For years, WebP’s biggest drawback was its limited support. Website operators couldn’t assume that all of their visitors would be able to view images saved using the format, so they had to fall back on the same formats Google was trying to make obsolete. That has become less of a problem as more browsers have added support for the format, however, so WebP should benefit as a result.
Another drawback was the hassle it took to manage WebP files in the first place. The lack of native support in popular apps for the majority of the format’s existence meant people had to create their images, convert them to WebP, and then keep the non-converted version as a backup in case someone visited their website via a browser that didn’t support the format.
WebP essentially needed to become popular before it could become popular. The problem is that it took nearly a decade for that to happen, and now Google’s already working on the next version of the format, according to a new “libwebp2” repository on the company’s Git server. Could that version take as long to catch on with site operators and software developers as its predecessor?
How to Open WebP Files
With all that out of the way: The easiest way to open a WebP file is in the browser. That is the format’s intended use case, after all, and it appears to have become increasingly common on popular websites. (At least according to our frustrated attempts to save an image we found online only to grapple with the same issues we’ve described in the text above.)
It’s also easier than ever to work with a WebP file outside the browser. Wikipedia has a list of apps that support the format; we listed some of the more common software above. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to manage WebP files with an up-to-date version of most popular image editing apps… unless you’re one of the countless people using PhotoShop.
PhotoShop users can still work with the format, however, using the WebPShop plug-in. Anyone who simply wants to convert an existing image to WebP can do so using the format’s command-line utility, too, if they prefer. That might not be ideal, but at least it remains an option for people who don’t want to use multiple image editors or fuss around with plug-ins.