By: Andrea Bennetts
Did you know that the first color picture online was a GIF? A still picture, that is. Not the GIF many of us think of today.
Just like today, in 1987, computer space costed money, so Steve Wilhite and his team at tech giant CompuServe created Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) as a way to make computers display a color image while saving memory. He did this by using a compression algorithm combined with image parameters like the number of available colors (256). Therefore, this format was ideal for images with solid areas of uniform color and well-defined edges.
Adding the animation to the format was what made the format revolutionary. Abraham Lemepl, Jacob Ziv and Terry Welch are to thank for that. These are the individuals who created a specific compression algorithm, named Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW). This algorithm identifies repeating patterns and then simplifies them into one file. In other words, animated GIFs are short sequences of still images in a single file which brings the animation effect on to the computer screen.
LZW is what makes an animated GIF different than any other short video. What makes it play silently and in a loop is already a part of the file. On the contrary, video files need to be coded in order to make them play automatically, silently, and in a never ending loop.
The unrest over GIFS began in 1994 when Unisys and CompuServe announced that they had a patent on the format, requiring users to pay a royalty fee for the software that used the algorithm. Some reactions to this announcement were practical such as a search for alternative formats like PNG and JPEG. Others were more extreme like the organized political protest called “Burn All GIFs” day, held on November 5, 1999. On this day, GIF users agreed to gather at Unisys and burn all of their GIF files. Despite the way the patent hindered its reputation, the GIF lives on today.
What is likely more well known than the information above is the all too common debate of the correct way to pronounce GIF- with a hard g as in the word ‘gift’ or a soft g as in Jif peanut butter? 79 percent of respondents to a poll on the WITS Instagram page said they pronounce the acronym with a hard g. Because of those results, it is important to note here that Wilhite, the developer of the format, named it using a soft g, saying “Choosy developers choose GIF.” as a play on the Jif peanut butter advertisement which says “Choosy mothers choose Jif.” Despite Wilhite’s clarification on the correct way to say the term, the Oxford English Dictionary still accepts both pronunciations and it continues to be debated amongst individuals.
The life of the GIF has been a rollercoaster but it has never completely died. Today, the format is arguably more popular than ever, being used to portray reactions through on-screen communication like direct message, social media, and texting. So, on June 15, just a few months from now, be sure to eat some cake or ice cream to celebrate the 32nd birthday of the GIF (with a soft g).