Evolving Computer Words: “GIF”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

The language we use is always changing, like how the word “cute” was originally a truncation of the word “acute”, which you’d use to describe somebody who was sharp-witted, as in “don’t get cute with me”. Nowadays, we use it when describing adorable things, like the subject of this GIF:

[Animated GIF] Puppy flumps onto a human.
Cute, but not acute.
But hang on a minute: that’s another word that’s changed meaning: GIF. Want to see how?


What people think it means

File format (or the files themselves) designed for animations and transparency. Or: any animation without sound.

What it originally meant

File format designed for efficient colour images. Animation was secondary; transparency was an afterthought.

The Past

Back in the 1980s cyberspace was in its infancy. Sir Tim hadn’t yet dreamed up the Web, and the Internet wasn’t something that most people could connect to, and bulletin board systems (BBSes) – dial-up services, often local or regional, sometimes connected to one another in one of a variety of ways – dominated the scene. Larger services like CompuServe acted a little like huge BBSes but with dial-up nodes in multiple countries, helping to bridge the international gaps and provide a lower learning curve than the smaller boards (albeit for a hefty monthly fee in addition to the costs of the calls). These services would later go on to double as, and eventually become exclusively, Internet Service Providers, but for the time being they were a force unto themselves.

CompuServe ad circa 1983
My favourite bit of this 1983 magazine ad for CompuServe is the fact that it claims a trademark on the word “email”. They didn’t try very hard to cling on to that claim, unlike their controversial patent on the GIF format…

In 1987, CompuServe were about to start rolling out colour graphics as a new feature, but needed a new graphics format to support that. Their engineer Steve Wilhite had the idea for a bitmap image format backed by LZW compression and called it GIF, for Graphics Interchange Format. Each image could be composed of multiple frames each having up to 256 distinct colours (hence the common mistaken belief that a GIF can only have 256 colours). The nature of the palette system and compression algorithm made GIF a particularly efficient format for (still) images with solid contiguous blocks of colour, like logos and diagrams, but generally underperformed against cosine-transfer-based algorithms like JPEG/JFIF for images with gradients (like most photos).

GIF with more than 256 colours.
This animated GIF (of course) shows how it’s possible to have more than 256 colours in a GIF by separating it into multiple non-temporal frames.

GIF would go on to become most famous for two things, neither of which it was capable of upon its initial release: binary transparency (having “see through” bits, which made it an excellent choice for use on Web pages with background images or non-static background colours; these would become popular in the mid-1990s) and animation. Animation involves adding a series of frames which overlay one another in sequence: extensions to the format in 1989 allowed the creator to specify the duration of each frame, making the feature useful (prior to this, they would be displayed as fast as they could be downloaded and interpreted!). In 1995, Netscape added a custom extension to GIF to allow them to loop (either a specified number of times or indefinitely) and this proved so popular that virtually all other software followed suit, but it’s worth noting that “looping” GIFs have never been part of the official standard!

Hex editor view of a GIF file's metadata section, showing Netscape headers.
Open almost any animated GIF file in a hex editor and you’ll see the word NETSCAPE2.0; evidence of Netscape’s role in making animated GIFs what they are today.

Compatibility was an issue. For a period during the mid-nineties it was quite possible that among the visitors to your website there would be a mixture of:

  1. people who wouldn’t see your GIFs at all, owing to browser, bandwidth, preference, or accessibility limitations,
  2. people who would only see the first frame of your animated GIFs, because their browser didn’t support animation,
  3. people who would see your animation play once, because their browser didn’t support looping, and
  4. people who would see your GIFs as you intended, fully looping

This made it hard to depend upon GIFs without carefully considering their use. But people still did, and they just stuck a Netscape Now button on to warn people, as if that made up for it. All of this has happened before, etc.

In any case: as better, newer standards like PNG came to dominate the Web’s need for lossless static (optionally transparent) image transmission, the only thing GIFs remained good for was animation. Standards like APNG/MNG failed to get off the ground, and so GIFs remained the dominant animated-image standard. As Internet connections became faster and faster in the 2000s, they experienced a resurgence in popularity. The Web didn’t yet have the <video> element and so embedding videos on pages required a mixture of at least two of <object>, <embed>, Flash, and black magic… but animated GIFs just worked and soon appeared everywhere.

How animation online really works.

The Future

Nowadays, when people talk about GIFs, they often don’t actually mean GIFs! If you see a GIF on Giphy or WhatsApp, you’re probably actually seeing an MPEG-4 video file with no audio track! Now that Web video is widely-supported, service providers know that they can save on bandwidth by delivering you actual videos even when you expect a GIF. More than ever before, GIF has become a byword for short, often-looping Internet animations without sound… even though that’s got little to do with the underlying file format that the name implies.

What's a web page? Something ducks walk on?
What’s a web page? What’s anything?

Verdict: We still can’t agree on whether to pronounce it with a soft-G (“jif”), as Wilhite intended, or with a hard-G, as any sane person would, but it seems that GIFs are here to stay in name even if not in form. And that’s okay. I guess.

[Animated GIF] Puppy flumps onto a human.× CompuServe ad circa 1983× GIF with more than 256 colours.× Hex editor view of a GIF file's metadata section, showing Netscape headers.× Magic.× What's a web page? Something ducks walk on?×