Safari ushers in better browser colors

Apple's Safari could bring richer colors to Windows browsers, but Firefox soon will help expand the gamut, too.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
Apple's Safari may not be rewriting the rules for Web browsing on Windows just yet, but it's leading the way with one significant change: photographs with better color.

Unlike the prevailing browsers on the Internet--Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox--the Apple browser supports different ways of encoding images that can mean richer, deeper colors. With the beta version of Safari now on Windows, Mac OS X users aren't the only ones who'll be able to see the difference.

However, Apple won't keep that edge for long. Mozilla's forthcoming Firefox 3 browser, due to ship in beta form this July, likely will include support for richer color, said Vlad Vukicevic, a technical leader at Mozilla and a photo enthusiast.

Together, the moves could help boost the Internet beyond the orbit of the sRGB color scheme, a broadly supported but limited standard initially introduced by Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. But it's not likely that Web photography will achieve sRGB escape velocity until the dominant Internet Explorer also follows suit.

A color test for browsers

People can see whether their browser properly supports color profiles by visiting an International Color Consortium Web page that shows a specially constructed image.

This first image tests whether your browser supports different ways of encoding color information. The four quarters of the image each are encoded with a different color profile: sRGB for the upper left, YCC-RGB for the upper right, GBR for the lower left and Adobe RGB for the lower right.

If your browser doesn't support International Color Consortium (ICC) color profiles, the scene looks like this.

If your browser supports ICC color profiles, the scene looks like this.

Credit: International Color Consortium

sRGB is fine for most people today, said Brad Hinkel, author of Color Management in Digital Photography and more recently a Microsoft project leader. But it doesn't encompass the full gamut of colors that the human eye can perceive or that can be displayed on the latest monitors.

"I've seen them. They're knock your socks off, intensely amazing--beautiful, vibrantly rich colors," Hinkel said. "Getting color management into Safari, into the browser and on the Internet is a great thing."

sRGB alternatives
Although the vast majority of images on the Web are encoded with sRGB, alternatives such as Adobe RGB, the European Color Intiaitive's ECI RGB and Microsoft's scRGB can display a broader palette of colors.

For now, there's little point employing the more sophisticated color schemes on the Web. IE, Firefox and Opera can't display them, and worse, Adobe RGB images, for example, typically look worse than sRGB on the Web. That's because the non-Safari browsers, incorrectly interpreting an Adobe RGB image as sRGB, drain the images of some of their color.

Not so with Safari. Apple machines are in widespread use among graphics professionals, and the operating system supports color encoding schemes that are called profiles and are standardized by a group called the International Color Consortium (ICC). Safari checks to see whether an image is tagged with a particular ICC color profile and displays it accordingly, tuned to work with the user's monitor.

While average Web surfers aren't likely to notice much of a difference, some professional photographers do care about the issue. For example, those selling images over the Web as stock art want them to look as good as possible, but they often encode their images as sRGB to make them appear better on the screens of potential purchasers.

People can see whether their browser properly supports color profiles by visiting an ICC Web page that shows a specially constructed image. With color support, the image appears to be a desert formation against a blue sky; without color support, it's a checkerboard of garishly distorted hues.

Color on computers is a complicated business, given the wide variety and near-infinite combinations of video cards, displays, printers, ink and cameras. ICC profiles can bring order to some of the chaos while preserving a bit more of the richness of color that human eyes can perceive.

Safari's competition isn't standing still. Microsoft wouldn't comment on future color-support plans for this article, but the company has sunk a lot of time and money into the color problem.

Microsoft developed scRGB, a wide-gamut color space that's now an international standard. For example, where sRGB devotes 8 bits of data to describing the red, green and blue color components for each pixel of an image, scRGB can devote 16 or 32 bits per component and describe the colors with more flexible floating-point numerals instead of just integers.

In addition, Microsoft is pushing a file format called HD Photo that it hopes will become a replacement for the ubiquitous JPEG. HD Photo--support for which is built into Vista under the format's previous name, Windows Media Photo--uses the scRGB color space. Supporting other color spaces in IE is a logical extension of promoting HD Photo.

The open-source Mozilla project is less tight-lipped about its plans for color profile support.

"I'd love to see it in Firefox 3, and we're working to get it there," Vukicevic said.

It's not certain that Firefox 3, code-named Gran Paradiso, will support ICC color profiles. But there is a patch under development and testing right now, Vukicevic said, and the goal is to include it. If it does ship, though, color management likely will be disabled by default.

"We're hoping to get the feature in for the first beta. At that point, we'll look at the feedback and decide whether to turn it on or off," Vukicevic said. For those who enable color management but who haven't calibrated their monitors to display standard colors, images will look different. And it's a toss-up whether they'll look better or worse, he said.

Another factor is performance. Enabling color support degrades Web page display "a few percent" for normal browsing, he said.

Firefox runs on multiple operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. To bring color support to all those foundations, Firefox uses an open-source color management engine called Little CMS that can translate from one color space, such as the one a photo uses, to another, such as the one a monitor uses.

ICC color support has been a longstanding feature request in Mozilla; the bug listing for the project initially was filed in 1999. It's been a personal issue for Vukicevic, too: he's a photographer as well as a programmer.

"There's a bunch of us at Mozilla who are amateur photographers," Vukicevic said, and they've "been clamoring for ICC support for quite a while now."

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