the life (and death?) of the mighty gif

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Whether you pronounce it GIF or JIF, the .gif file format has been around for some time.

With many other image formats available — from old stalwarts like JPEG to newfangled ones like HEIC — there is talk in some corners that the GIF’s days are numbered.

So where has the GIF been, and where is it going? Here’s a brief explainer.

The GIF’s original use case: images for the early internet

We’ve talked before about the inventor of the GIF — a guy named Steve Wilhite who worked for O.G. ISP CompuServe.

Wilhite, who passed away earlier in 2022, created the GIF not to share memes but to compress images. The format used a compression algorithm called LZW, which promised to shrink images down without losing any data.

When GIFs were launched in 1987, they were state-of-the-art. But the compression that made the GIF possible proved to be its undoing. In the mid-90s, a company called Unisys claimed ownership of the LZW algorithm and threatened to charge royalties any time it was used.

The meme-ification of the GIF

The PNG image format was initiated in 1995 to address some of GIF’s shortcomings.

In fact, PNG stands for “PNG’s Not GIF.”

First, PNG is open-source. That solved the immediate problem of Unisys’ patent claim.

Second, PNG covers way more of the color spectrum. GIFs only offer 256-color support, while PNG can display millions of colors.

Finally, PNG images compress better and promise quicker page loads.

With all of these advantages to PNG, the GIF might have died out — were it not for the introduction of the animated GIF in 1995.

Animated GIFs quickly rose to prominence in pop culture. Remember the dancing baby in Ally McBeal?

GIFs’ super-smooth loops made them the perfect meme format. When blogging platform Tumblr burst onto the scene in 2007, it became the de facto home of the animated GIF. Six years later, recognizing the format’s popularity, Tumblr innovated a new resizing process to make GIFs faster and more fluid.

The downsides of GIF alternatives

Today, it’s much more common to see website images as PNGs than as GIFs. Short videos, meanwhile, are moving to MP4. That’s the case even on Tumblr.

In addition to providing better color support, these GIF alternatives are a lot smarter at compressing data.

But, as artist Cat Frazier explained to the Atlantic magazine this year, something gets lost in the race to minimize page load times.

“If I could just upload GIFs everywhere and not reformat them, I would,” she said.

Frazier and other GIF artists love the format for a few reasons. First, its limitations demand creativity. Tumblr GIFs were capped for many years at 1MB, forcing creators to be strategic in how they presented their work.

Second, artists tend to be perfectionists — and the GIF, unlike any other image format, allows for perfect, endless loops.

Why GIFs will still have a home on illumy

At illumy, these smooth loops are one reason we’re continuing to support the GIF. But that’s just part of the story.

GIFs also allow for a quick, punchy response within a conversation — similar to a reaction or emoji, but with more depth.

And a GIF lets you express yourself in a way that no other image or video format allows: to tell a story, share a thought, or underline an emotion.

We’re such big fans of the format that we’re adding GIFs with sound to the illumy platform. Sound-enabled GIFs will add even more context into your conversations, not to mention fun.

(You’ll be able to mute them if you prefer a quieter experience.)

In addition, we’re even going to allow you to set an animated GIF as your profile picture. You can be a waving bear, a Jim Halpert face, a starburst, or anything else you dream up.

So even as the world moves towards newer, better standards, we believe the GIF has an important role to play. Our hope is that it stays in the picture (image?) for many years to come.

Photo by Raoul Droog on Unsplash.

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