I first connected to the Internet at the end of the 1990s, and there were already GIFs. It was mostly little animated logos, some arrows bouncing around, that kind of stuff. I never really thought about it until this week when the death of the creator of the GIF was announced. I was like…
Who invented the GIF?
As you may know, it’s pronounced “JIF.” As you may not know, GIF is the abbreviation for Graphics Interchange Format. As the Cambridge Dictionary explained it, a GIF is a type of computer file, a bitmap image format, that contains a still or moving image.
As for its inventor, the GIF was developed by a team at the online services provider CompuServe led by American computer scientist Steve Wilhite (1948–2022), in response to a request from CompuServe executive Alexander “Sandy” Trevor. It was released on 15 June 1987.
The goal of CompuServe was to provide a color image format for their file downloading areas. The format previously used was black and white only. It may surprise you, but what made the GIF popular at the time, was not the possibility to create little animation, but the fact that it used Lempel—Ziv—Welch (LZW), a lossless data compression technique allowing to reduce the file size without degrading the visual quality (it was only 8-bit images, though). You have to remember how slow the Internet was back then, a good compression was useful to load faster.
The Patent Problem
Steve Wilhite read about the LZW in a technical journal and thought it would be a good foundation for their project. The goal was to put a lot of information in little bytes as possible. The use of the LZW could have ruined the GIF. When the American multinational information technology company Unisys acquired the patent for LZW, it threatened to sue everybody using the technology.
This led to an agreement between CompuServe and Unisys in which they agree to encourage any GIF developers who use CompuServe as a distributor to pay a royalty fee to Unisys. A lot of software developers threatened to stop using GIF. The PNG format (Portable Network Graphics) was developed as a possible alternative but replacing the GIF proved to be almost impossible.
The best option was the development of GIF variations without LZW compression. In August 1999, Unisys changed its stance and allowed website owners or other GIF users who had used licensed software to generate GIFs to continue to use them without obtaining a license. The whole affair turned out to be a communication nightmare for Unisys. everything was fixed in 2004 when the patent expired.
The Infinite Loop
“What has made GIF hang around is the animation loop that Netscape added. If Netscape had not added GIF in their browser, GIF would have died in 1998.” — Steve Wilhite.
If a GIF can store multiple pictures, it was the Internet browser, the popular Netscape Navigator (version 2.0), which added in 1995 the ability to run in an infinite loop.
In 1998, AOL bought CompuServe and allowed the GIF patents to expire, letting people do what they want with it. And they did. Even if the original limitations of the format (especially the 256 color limits) could have made it obsolete, the GIF is still extremely popular to this day.