The GIF Format Is 30 Years Old and More Popular Than Ever

Technology standards often fade with age, but at 30 the GIF is more popular than ever.

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Jun 21 2017, 10:00am

Image: Dark Dwarf/Flickr

On June 15, 1987 the popular online service Compuserve introduced a new image format for its file download areas. Caled Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), it was a big step up from its old black-and-white graphics. GIFs allowed for an amazing 256 colors and used LZW compression (a big step up from the RLE compression of its prior graphics format). You could even put multiple images together in a stream to make them animate!

Today, image formats have evolved. The phones in our pockets are thousands of times more powerful, with connections thousands of times faster, than those old computers. Yet somehow, despite plenty of technically better options, the GIF has persevered. No, flourished. Now 30 years old, it seems more popular than ever.

A (very) brief history of the GIF

The GIF was popular for simple animated images in the old BBS days before the iInternet caught on, but it really started to break out after Netscape added looping GIF animations in its Netscape Navigator 2.0 browser back in 1995. According to the original specification, GIFs only play once. Netscape added a simple extension that specified the number of times the animation would repeat (with a 0 meaning it would loop forever).

And just like that, the GIF was everywhere. Tens of thousands of GeoCties pages bore animated "under construction" GIFs. It became as overused as blinking text and background music.

From the Dancing Baby to the Hamster Dance, the early internet subculture was inextricably linked with GIFs.

GIF popularity stalled with the rise of "Web 2.0" in the 2000s. Bandwidth was going up, video services and Flash animations ruled the day, and the GIF seemed antiquated.

Then came the smartphone boom. Early iPhones and Android phones demanded lightweight "mobile" web design without Flash, and mobile bandwidth was too limited for video. What's more, the GIF format had been the subject of some patent licensing battles, but those patents expired in 2004, making the GIF format essentially public-domain.

Today, the format is more popular than ever. Despite the abundant processing power and bandwidth of modern devices, there's just something simple and delightful about short, looping, sound-free animations. Combined with far more accessible tools for creating GIFs from video and the explosion of online services like Giphy, Gfycat, and Imgur, GIFs keep growing in popularity. Somehow, in a world where Vine couldn't make it, the "inferior" GIF is just growing stronger.

Today, the very keyboards of our smartphones have built-in GIF support. Reddit users compete for fake internet points to produce High Quality GIFs. Even Facebook, a GIF holdout for years, just recently added official support for GIFs in comments (though still not in new posts). In order to save bandwidth, most of these services actually convert GIFs to soundless looping MP4 videos, which are a fraction of the size, before posting.

The Pronunciation Battle

No discussion of the GIF is complete without paying lip service to one of the most enduring, and silliest, internet fights of our time: how to pronounce it.

Some say it it pronounced with a soft G, like "jiff." Others with a hard G, like "ghiff." Most dictionaries accept both pronunciations as correct. The arguments, in a nutshell, go like this:

Hard-G
It's Graphics Interchage Format, not Jraphics Interchange Format. When surveyed, most people say it with a hard G. It just sounds better.

Soft-G
It doesn't matter what the words are that make up an acronym, an acronym carries its own pronunciation (S.C.U.B.A. is "skoo-buh" not "scub-ba"; we don't take money out of an Ah-T-M). Most of the time when a G is followed by an I it has a soft G sound, as in "giant" or "giraffe."

The inventor of the format, Steve Wilhite, proclaimed in 2013 that, "The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft 'G,' pronounced 'jif.' End of story." This did absolutely nothing to solve the debate. Team Soft G claimed victory, while Team Hard G simply (and rightly) said that language is mutable, ever-changing, and subject to the whims of the public not the inventors of acronyms.

At the current rate, the GIF is going to be around for another 30 years, and we'll probably still argue over how it should be pronounced. Because if the internet has proven anything, it's that GIFs are magic, and we can't allow two opposing sides to both win anything.

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