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Choosy software developers choose 'GIF'

May 27, 2022
by Mark Ollig

In 1987, Stephen Wilhite worked at CompuServe as a computing engineer.

At the time, CompuServe was a popular computer dial-up online service provider.

Wilhite was assigned by its chief technical officer, Alexander Trevor, to develop an improved image file extension format that could function across an assortment of software and computer systems.

During the 1980s, popular computers included Apple, Atari, Commodore, IBM, and Tandy TRS-80.

On May 28, 1987, Wilhite developed the new file saving arrangement, which CompuServe used as its proprietary image file format.

They called it a graphics interexchange format and used the acronym GIF.

GIF is a username file extension allowing the sharing of photographs, drawings, charts, weather maps, animation, and other images over dial-up telephone lines – regardless of the computer used.

An extension format using GIF became a widely used compact file format for graphical images that moved, called looping video animation.

In a telephone interview with the Washington Post newspaper, Trevor said GIF caught on quickly with software developers and confirmed, “Wilhite was the architect of GIF, no question about it.”

Once the web started over the internet, animated GIFs began appearing on websites; I also recall seeing them on Facebook’s predecessor, MySpace, in the early 2000s.

In 2012, GIF became so popular that Oxford English Dictionary named it Word of the Year.

GIF went through a lot of controversy among software developers and online users.

GIF used data-compression algorithms initially developed in 1977 and 1978 by Jacob Ziv and Abraham Lempel.

In 1983, a variation of Lempel and Ziv was created by Terry Welch, and the combined algorithms were named LZW.

A patent for LZW was obtained in 1985 by Sperry Corp., which became Unisys Corp.

In 1987, CompuServe used the LZW data compression method with their GIF, unaware of the existing patent.

In 1993, Unisys licensed CompuServe to use LZW with GIF; unfortunately, this did not sit well with other online service providers and computer programmers.

By 1995, a new data compression file format called Portable Network Graphics using the filename extension PNG was created by developers as an alternative for GIF.

PNG was not readily accepted because, at the time, programmers made software and web browsers to work with GIF. Therefore, developers could not easily replace it.

PNG began to become more widely used starting in 1996 as an alternative to GIF.

In 1999, Unisys changed its licensing practice, announcing the option for owners of certain non-commercial and private websites to obtain licenses on payment of a one-time license fee of $5000 or $7500.

This action did not prevent Unisys from being subjected to thousands of online attacks and rude emails from users, as many believed they would be charged a large dollar amount or sued for using GIFs on their websites.

Although hundreds of non-profit organizations, schools, and government agencies were given free GIF licenses using LZW, Unisys’ favorable rating received only a slight improvement from the public.

Unisys continued to be criticized by individuals and organizations, including one called the League for Programming Freedom, which orchestrated the “Burn All GIFs” crusade.

Some of you will remember this colossal GIF uproar.

The GIF conflict ended during the summer of 2004, and peace was restored when all LZW patents worldwide expired. Thus no fees were associated with using its compression techniques when using a GIF.

Newer web browsers and software were already developed, allowing GIF and PNG file formats.

Let us address another controversy concerning the pronunciation of GIF. Does the “G” sound like a soft g like in the word Jif, the peanut butter brand? Or a hard g, like the word gift?

“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft “G” and pronounced “jif.” End of story,” Stephen Wilhite reportedly said.

Wilhite studied computer science and engineering at Ohio State University and joined CompuServe shortly after the company was founded in 1969.

Stephen Wilhite developed compilers to translate source code from high-level computer programming.

In 1998, online service provider America Online (AOL) acquired CompuServe. Wilhite continued working there and retired after suffering a stroke in 2000.

Stephen Earl Wilhite, an American computer scientist, was born on March 3, 1948, in West Chester Township, Ohio, and recently passed away on March 14, 2022, at the age of 74.

The final resolution to the GIF pronunciation controversy comes directly from its creator, Stephen Wilhite. While he was on stage accepting the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Webby Award, a large display screen on the wall behind him flashed this message: “IT’S PRONOUNCED “JIF” NOT “GIF.”

This message brought applause and laughter from the audience. Wilhite smiled as he walked off the stage with his award.

You can watch his award presentation on the Webby Awards YouTube channel: https://bit.ly/38Khcab.

I took a screen capture of Stephen Wilhite and the GIF pronunciation message from my computer during the 2013 Webby Awards and saved the image as Wilhite_Award.gif.

In 1966, Grey Advertising came up with this famous slogan for Jif peanut butter: “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif.”

And, lest we forget: “choosy software developers choose GIF.”

Well, maybe not so much in 2022, but they once did.


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