The strange history of the GIF format

CompuServe introduced it in 1987. It’s limited to 256 different colors (possibly more with some color table trickery). When it was locked down by a patent, people rebelled and invented better formats. Yet 30 years later, the GIF format is strangely popular. Wired’s article, “The GIF Turns 30,” covers its history and the bizarre resurgence in its popularity.

The reason for its survival is a feature that seemed unimportant at first: it lets people create simple animations. That wasn’t a very practical feature on the home computers of the eighties; the creators probably thought of it more as a way to put a slide show into one file, with the image changing every few seconds.

Today the format is used to sneak animations in everywhere. They’re short and clumsy, and a lot of them loop indefinitely. They’re annoying. I have my browser set to disable GIF animation. But there’s no doubt that they’re popular. There are several reasons for this:

  • ’Tis a GIF to be simple. A competent developer can knock off a complete implementation in a few days. No plugins are necessary.
  • ’Tis a GIF to be patent-free. This is an ironic reversal. When Unisys demanded license fees on all software to create GIF files (as well as other formats when using LZW compression), the developer and user communities were furious. But the patents eventually expired. Curiously, this didn’t result in the death of the format, but rather in renewed interest. The MP4 format is loaded with patents.
  • ’Tis a GIF you can drop in where it ought to be. It passes for an image format. There’s no need to put it into a video frame. All it needs in a Web page is an <img> tag.

I don’t like images jumping around while I’m trying to read a Web page. On the other hand, GIF animations appeal to my rebellious side. They don’t require YouTube or any other gatekeeper beyond basic Web hosting. There’s a wide choice of software for creating them.

For better or worse, GIF files will be around for quite a while. They’ve gone in directions which Steve Wilhite, the head of the GIF development team, never expected. We don’t even pronounce it the way he wants us to.

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