Jason explains the root of the problem and why no one has been able to devise a solution that makes everyone happy yet. The browsers (in their awesome drive to make browsing faster) are prefetching images and developers want to only use one image based on criteria the browser doesn't know until the layout is calculated.
Echoing some other thoughts and comments I’ve read, but writing it out so I can grasp the details.
What about the updated image format that by default only loads the smallest embedded size. Then once the browser finishes layout and knows what size the image is rendered at (and also resolution) it can update the request for an image that’s embedded in the file that best fits or matches the requirements. This by default would load the smaller part of the file and display something for the prefetching browsers and “enhance” the image as it can. I can see photo editing software like photoshop (if that’s your poison of choice) to have extra settings for creating this new image type – resolutions to include, breakpoints to be set, etc. The we aren’t managing multiple images – it’d be one file that included all the desired sizes. Very much like progressive images and old gifs. Mobile browsers and old fallback browsers would display the smallest (or first) specified img (although this could also be determined in the meta data of the file – which subimg would be the default). This may end up in users with high BW/large screens to download two subimages rather than only the high res image, but remember that the first one would be much smaller in size and if they can handle it the big one the big and smallest together shouldn’t be too heavy. The page would also load very fast as the first image to load would be much faster than loading the large image initially whatever the bandwidth. Then browsers and image compression engineers can get together and figure out a communication method between the browsers and images via metadata and requests while developers/designers can just choose the proper settings as they save the files (or software can have standard-best-practice defaults) and focus on creating websites rather than having to understand how all browsers and devices will load and present content.
Also – Amen to @Brian Gallagher: “Who are we to make the distinction between what the users NEEDS to see, and what the user WANTS to see?”
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