The GIF is now about 30 years old and is in the prime of its digital age. From Barack Obama’s signature posture, the sloth from Zootopia, to the bear waving its paw, all these things have one thing in common. They are all the production of animated GIFs. Since their inception, we have seen these looping clips making us laugh.
Many of these GIFs have made people overnight superstars. Today, wherever we see on social media, we get to see GIFs. Such is the impact of these animated forms that people have started to make their own using a GIF maker online. So, even if you are not a pro in creative and technical skills, still you can create funny and viral-worthy GIFs.
You have laughed at them, shared them with friends, or uploaded them on your website and Discord.
You can even make your own with a GIF maker online, letting you create something funny and even viral-worthy, even if you lack creative and technical skills.
And yet you do not know what GIFs are, including what is the history of GIF and where they come from.
That’s why this look-back is for you!
GIF-Tastic Beginnings: A Look into the Birth of Animated Images
The beginnings of GIFs (graphics interchange formats) have nothing to do with memes, social media, and coolness. Rather, they were an answer to a necessity.
It all began in CompuServe, a pioneering online service provider, in 1987. During this time, people could already communicate in chatrooms. And many big brands, such as Apple, had already started using images.
The problem is they were proprietary. Worse, even if charts were already available, they didn’t render well in CompuServe.
What the team needed were images that could:
- Run seamlessly despite the slowness of the Internet (remember, these are the days of dial-up)
- Work across several computer models and brands
Steve Wilhite, then a CompuServe engineer, created the solution using the compression principle called LZW, named for its creators.
As a lossless technique, LZW ensures the integrity of the original data by reconstructing the uncompressed data at the receiver’s end.
The compression method involves assigning variable-length codes to frequently occurring patterns in the data. The algorithm scans the input data for patterns and grows the codebook, which stores the assigned code and the current pattern.
When the algorithm encounters a new pattern, it assigns and adds a new code to the codebook. In the process, LZW compression can achieve high compression ratios on data with repeated patterns, like text, images, or sound waves.
Despite the aha moment, the earliest GIFs were crude. For example, it was only limited to 256 colors, and the image size was limited. But the potential was huge, propelling their growth over the years.
Rise of the GIF
Two years after the invention of GIFs, online platforms such as AOL and CompuServe began using them, which prompted their widespread adoption.
The 1990s saw a massive shift toward web-based applications as well as an increase in Internet speeds. This helped pave the way for larger images, better animations, and even interactive media to be created with GIFs.
In addition, introducing sound-based file formats like WAV files also made it possible for people to create animated GIFs with audio clips — something that was impossible before. These files allowed for smoother animations than ever before since they weren’t limited by the 256-color palette or size restrictions of regular GIFs.
At this point, people used GIFs in many ways, including decorating web pages and creating rudimentary games.
The Fall of GIFs
Although GIFs were ruling the roost in the 1990s, this changed rapidly with the introduction of superior image formats such as Flash and JPEG.
Flash allowed for much higher-quality visuals than GIFs, in addition to allowing rich animations and interactivity. This made them far more appealing to developers, who had been relying on GIFs for flashy visuals on web pages.
JPEG also posed a formidable threat: it could store up to 16 million colors — far more than GIF’s 256 — and provide superior compression rates. And unlike GIF images, JPEG files are not limited by size restrictions, so they can be easily adapted to fit various screen sizes.
All this meant that people no longer needed GIFs for animations and visuals. Other file formats had become more advanced and flexible, so GIFs were quickly becoming obsolete.
The Resurgence of GIFs
Today, GIFs are going through a major resurgence, thanks to increased Internet speeds, better compression methods, and social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter.
New online tools such as Giphy make it easier than ever to find high-quality clips from movies or television shows that can be used to easily create stunning GIFs.
Developers are also leveraging the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence to create new tools that can make GIFs interactively. These programs can turn live video streams into high-quality GIFs in real time, allowing users to capture the exact moment they want while completely eliminating the need for manual editing.
So although newer file formats may have dethroned it in the early 2000s, thanks to its flexibility and ease of use and its newfound popularity on social media platforms, GIFs are once again becoming a mainstream image format. And with more advancements being made every day, it looks like this trend is here to stay.