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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - The Importance of Being Textual - Case Study: The PNG Graphics File Format

Case Study: The PNG Graphics File Format

PNG (Portable Network Graphics) is a file format for bitmap graphics. It is like GIF, and unlike JPEG, in that it uses lossless compression and is optimized for applications such as line art and icons rather than photographic images. Documentation and open-source reference libraries of high quality are available at the Portable Network Graphics website.

PNG is an excellent example of a thoughtfully designed binary format. A binary format is appropriate since graphics files may contain very large amounts of data, such that storage size and Internet download time would go up significantly if the pixel data were stored textually. Transaction economy was the prime consideration, with transparency sacrificed.[53] The designers were, however, careful about interoperability; PNG specifies byte orders, integer word lengths, endianness, and (lack of) padding between fields.

A PNG file consists of a sequence of chunks, each in a self-describing format beginning with the chunk type name and the chunk length. Because of this organization, PNG does not need a release number. New chunk types can be added at any time; the case of the first letter in the chunk type name informs PNG-using software whether or not each chunk can be safely ignored.

The PNG file header also repays study. It has been cleverly designed to make various common kinds of file corruption (e.g., by 7-bit transmission links, or mangling of CR and LF characters) easy to detect.

The PNG standard is precise, comprehensive, and well written. It could serve as a model for how to write file format standards.



[51] There is a legend that some early airline reservation systems allocated exactly one byte for a plane's passenger count. Supposedly they became very confused by the arrival of the Boeing 747, the first plane that could carry more than 255 passengers.

[52] Password files are normally read once per user session at login time, and after that occasionally by file-system utilities like ls(1) that must map from numeric user and group IDs to names.

[53] Confusingly, PNG supports a different kind of transparency — transparent pixels in the PNG image.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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