Apple HEIC vs. students

When a device uses a relatively obscure image format and a site that accepts uploads fumbles it, who is to blame? This is the question that came up when students couldn’t complete their AP college exams because of such a situation.

Students took pictures with their iOS devices of materials they submitted for the test. Their phones stored and uploaded the pictures in HEIC format. The College Board’s server didn’t recognize the format and timed out. The students immediately failed and were told they could retake the test in three weeks.

HEIC is Apple’s name for the HEIF container format with HEVC compression. Both the container and the codec follow parts of the MPEG-H standard. The container can hold images, derived images, sequences, and metadata. Technically, it’s clearly superior to the ancient JPEG format. However, multiple new and improved image formats have been competing for decades without a clear winner. Not everyone supports HEIC.

Who’s to blame for the disconnect?

Whose fault is it things went wrong with the AP tests? Apple isn’t free from blame. The iPhones and iPads didn’t make it clear what format they were using. There’s a setting that lets users choose between HEIC and JPEG, except that it’s needlessly obscure. The choices are “High Efficiency” and “Most Compatible,” and you have to read the fine print to find out what those formats actually are.

Most users will never open that setting or realize there’s a choice to make. There are no file extensions visible to the iOS user, so they can’t easily tell what format their pictures are in. The blame here falls on Apple’s design philosophy, which is to hide essential technical information for the sake of a smoother user experience. My ancient iPad doesn’t have the “High Efficiency” option. Apple must have quietly introduced it in a more recent iOS version than my device can run. People who were used to having JPEG photos started shooting HEIC photos at some point without knowing it.

But the College Board’s servers — that is, their developers — deserve a bigger chunk of the blame. If you upload an image file to a site that has specific requirements, it should check if the file is valid and immediately respond with an error message if it isn’t. It certainly shouldn’t auto-fail test takers because of a technical glitch. The fact that it responds that way suggests that it doesn’t do any checks on the file and could well be vulnerable to malicious uploads.

The Verge used the title “Students are failing AP tests because the College Board can’t handle iPhone photos,” but that’s not right. Not being able to handle all formats is legitimate. Hanging instead of responding when getting an unsupported file format isn’t.

No server can support all possible formats, but unless it’s content-agnostic, it has to validate the files it gets. In this case, the students bore the burden of the College Board’s failure to do that.

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