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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An Honor for the Creator of the GIF

Among the thousands of file formats that exist in modern computing, the GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, has attained celebrity status in a sea of lesser-known BMPs, RIPs, FIGs and MIFFs. It was honored as a “word of the year” in 2012, and Tuesday night, its inventor, Steve Wilhite, will be accepting a lifetime achievement award at The Webby Awards.

Now, almost any fragment of digital culture can be spun up into a grainy, gratifying animation. GIFs provide a platform for nearly everything, it seems - from rapid-fire political commentary to digital art to small moments of celebrity intrigue.

Has any file format received more attention, more accolades (or had more fun) than the GIF?

Invented in 1987, today the GIF has become the aesthetic calling card of modern Internet culture. Even Yahoo released one to announce the company's acquisition of Tumblr this week, seen below.

“It's been an incredibly enduring piece of technology,” said David-Michel Davies, the executive director of The Webby Awards. “Even as bandwidth has expanded,” he said, “it has been very exciting to see how much cultural cachet the format has gotten.”

But back in 1987, such things could not be imagined. Dial-up speeds were achingly slow. Image downloads were made even worse by interoperability problems. An article that year in the magazine, “Online Today” described the problem:

“Horror stories about incompatible microcomputers may be humorous when everyone is in a good mood, but they are certainly the nemesis of any serious computer user. The frustration is no laughing matter when a person wants to transfer some data or a graphics image, and the system doesn't cooperate.”

Mr. Wilhite, then working at CompuServe (the nation's first major online service) knew the company wanted to display things like color weather maps. Because he had an interest in compression technologies, Mr. Wilhite thought he could help.

“I saw the format I wanted in my head and then I started programming,” he said in an e-mail. (He primarily uses e-mail to communicate now, after suffering a stroke in 2000.) The first image he created was a picture of an airplane.

The prototype took about a month and the format was released in June 1987.

“I remember when other people saw the GIF,” he said. Colleagues abandoned work on on other black and white formats, he said, as graphics experts began to spread the GIF online. A triumph of speed and compression, the GIF was able to move as fast as Internet culture itself, and has today become the ultimate meme-maker.

In the last decade, the animated GIF has reigned supreme, and while Mr. Wilhite has never himself made an animated GIF, he said the classic, “dancing baby” from 1996 remains a favorite.

Since retiring in 2001, Mr. Wilhite has led a quieter existence than his creation. He goes on RV trips. He built a house in the country with a lot of lawn to mow. He dabbles in color photography and Java programming. He uses e-mail and Facebook to keep up with family.

He is proud of the GIF, but remains annoyed that there is still any debate over the pronunciation of the format.

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

The webcast of Mr. Wilhite's Webby Award acceptance speech will be on YouTube on Wednesday.