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?

GIF

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.

Magic.
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.

Proposal to allow specifying a text snippet in a URL fragment

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

To enable users to easily navigate to specific content in a web page, we propose adding support for specifying a text snippet in the URL. When navigating to such a URL, the browser will find the first instance of the text snippet in the page and bring it into view.

Web standards currently specify support for scrolling to anchor elements with name attributes, as well as DOM elements with ids, when navigating to a fragment. While named anchors and elements with ids enable scrolling to limited specific parts of web pages, not all documents make use of these elements, and not all parts of pages are addressable by named anchors or elements with ids.

Current Status

This feature is currently implemented as an experimental feature in Chrome 74.0.3706.0 and newer. It is not yet shipped to users by default. Users who wish to experiment with it can use chrome://flags#enable-text-fragment-anchor. The implementation is incomplete and doesn’t necessarily match the specification in this document.

tl;dr

Allow specifying text to scroll and highlight in the URL:

https://example.com##targetText=prefix-,startText,endText,-suffix

Using this syntax

##targetText=[prefix-,]textStart[,textEnd][,-suffix]

              context  |-------match-----|  context

(Square brackets indicate an optional parameter)

This is a feature that I’ve wished that the Web had on many, many occasions. I’m sure you’ve needed it before, too: you’ve wanted to give somebody the URL of (or link to) a particular part of a page but there’s been no appropriately-placed anchor to latch on to. Being able to select part of the text on the page and just copy that after a ## in the address bar would be so much simpler.

Chrome's experimental fragment text link targetting
Naturally, I tried this experimental feature out on this very web page; it worked pretty nicely!

Chrome’s implementation is somewhat conservative, requiring a prefix of ##targetText= (this minimises the risk of collision with other applications which store/pass data via hashes), but it’s still pretty full-featured, with support for prefixes and suffixes to the text to-be-selected. I quite like it, but of course it needs running down the standards track before it can be relied upon as anything other than a progressive enhancement.

I do wonder, though, whether this will be met with resistance by ad/subscription-supported content creators as a new example of the deep linking they seem to hate so much.

(with thanks to Jeremy Keith for sharing this)

Why do book spines have the titles printed the way they do?

Have you noticed how the titles printed on the spines of your books are all, for the most part, oriented the same way? That’s not a coincidence.

Illustration of a chained library
If you can’t see the spines of your books at all, perhaps you’re in a library and it’s the 17th century. Wait: how are you on the Internet?

ISO 6357 defines the standard positioning of titles on the spines of printed books (it’s also codified as British Standard BS6738). If you assume that your book is stood “upright”, the question is one of which way you tilt your head to read the title printed on the spine. If you tilt your head to the right, that’s a descending title (as you read left-to-right, your gaze moves down, towards the surface on which the book stands). If you tilt your head to the left, that’s an ascending title. If you don’t need to tilt your head in either direction, that’s a transverse title.

ISO 6357:1985 page illustrating different standard spine title alignments.
Not every page in ISO 6357:1985 is as exciting as this one.

The standard goes on to dictate that descending titles are to be favoured: this places the title in a readable orientation when the book lays flat on a surface with the cover face-up. Grab the nearest book to you right now and you’ll probably find that it has a descending title.

Books on a shelf.
This eclectic shelf includes a transverse title (the Holy Bible), a semi-transverse title (The Book of English Magic) and a rare ascending title (A First Dictionary) among a multitude of descending titles.

But if the book is lying on a surface, I can usually read the cover of the book. Only if a book is in a stack am I unable to do so, and stacks are usually relatively short and so it’s easy enough to lift one or more books from the top to see what lies beneath. What really matters when considering the orientation of a spine title is, in my mind, how it appears when it’s shelved.

It feels to me like this standard’s got things backwards. If a shelf of anglophone books is organised into any kind of order (e.g. alphabetically) then it’ll usually be from left to right. If I’m reading the titles from left to right, and the spines are printed descending, then – from the perspective of my eyes – I’m reading from bottom to top: i.e. backwards!

It’s possible that this is one of those things that I overthink.

RFC-20

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

The choice of this encoding has made ASCII-compatible standards the language that computers use to communicate to this day.

Even casual internet users have probably encountered a URL with “%20” in it where there logically ought to be a space character. If we look at this RFC we see this:

   Column/Row  Symbol      Name

   2/0         SP          Space (Normally Non-Printing)

Hey would you look at that! Column 2, row 0 (2,0; 20!) is what stands for “space”. When you see that “%20”, it’s because of this RFC, which exists because of some bureaucratic decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s.

Darius Kazemi is reading a single RFC every day throughout 2019 and writing up his understanding as to the content and importance of each. It’s good reading if you’re “into” RFCs and it’s probably pretty interesting if you’re just a casual Internet historian.