The GIF Turns 30: How an Ancient Format Changed the Internet – Klint Finley May 28, 2017


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The web’s favorite file format just turned 30. Yep, it turns out the GIF is a millennial, too.

At the same time, 30 makes the GIF ancient in web years, which feels a bit weird, given that the proliferation of animated GIFs is a relatively recent phenomenon. Today, Twitter has a GIF button and even Apple added GIF search to its iOS messaging app. Such mainstream approval would have seemed unthinkable even a decade ago, when GIFs had the cultural cachet of blinking text and embedded MIDIfiles. But today they’re ubiquitous, and not in some nostalgic sense.

Animated GIFs have transcended their obscure 1990s roots to become a key part of day-to-day digital communication. Some, like Orson Welles clapping or Michael Jackson eating popcorn, have become instantly recognizable shorthand. Others, like Sean Spicer disappearing into the bushes—itself a remix of a popular Simpsons GIF—serve up political satire. The GIF does double duty as both expression and as badge of digital literacy. Not bad for an image standard that pre-dates the web itself.

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Today GIFs are synonymous with short, looping, animations. But they got their start as a way of displaying still images. Steve Wilhite started work on the Graphics Interchange Format in early 1986. At the time, he was a programmer for Compuserve, an early online service that let users access chat rooms, forums, and information like stock quotes using dial-up modems. Sandy Trevor, Wilhite’s boss at Compuserve, tells WIRED that he wanted to solve two problems.

The first was that Compuserve needed a graphics format that worked on all computers. At the time, the PC market was split between several companies, including Apple, Atari, Commodore, IBM, and Tandy, each with its own way of displaying graphics. Compuserve had used other graphics formats of the era, such as NAPLPS, but Trevor thought they were too complex to implement. So he tasked Wilhite with creating a simple format that would work on any machine.

Second, he wanted Wilhite to create technology that could quickly display sharp images over slow connections. “In the eighties, 1200 baud was high speed,” Trevor says. “Lots of people only had 300 baud modems.” The average broadband connection in the US is more than 40,000 times faster than even those blazing fast 1200 baud connections, so Compuserve needed truly tiny files.

The web’s other major image format, the JPEG, was under development at the time. But it’s better suited for photographs and other images that contain high amounts of detail and won’t suffer from a small amount of distortion. Compuserve needed to display stock quotes, weather maps, and other graphs—simple images that would suffer from having jagged lines. So Wilhite decided to base the GIF on a lossless compression protocol called Lempel–Ziv–Welch, or LZW.

Wilhite finished the first version of the GIF specification on May, 1987, and Compuserve began using the format the next month. This was two years before Sir Tim Berners-Lee announced his World Wide Web project and six years before the Mosiac browser made the web accessible to less technical users. But it was the web that made the GIF what it is today.

Under Construction

The GIF was perfect for displaying logos, line art, and charts on the web for all the same reasons that Wilhite first developed the format. And because portions of an image could be transparent, meaning an image could blend into the background or be fit together with other images in interesting ways, it enabled web designers to create more complex layouts. But the most important thing about the format was that Wilhite had the foresight to make it extensible, so that other developers could add custom types of information to GIFs. That enabled the team behind the Netscape browser to create the animated GIF standard in 1995. “I didn’t ask Steve to put in as much extensibility as he did, but I’m glad he did,” Trevor says.

Soon, “under construction” GIFs adorned practically every site on the web. The “Dancing Baby” becoming one the web’s first true viral video sensations. The dancing 7-Up mascot “Cool Spot” also made a unconscionable number of appearances, making it perhaps the first viral #brand GIF.

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Why the FCC’s Plans to Gut Net Neutrality Just Might Fail – KLINT FINLEY 04.26.17. 6:23 PM


Members Of The House Are Briefed On North Korea By Top Trump Administration Officials
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks at an internet regulation event at the Newseum on April 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.Eric Thayer/Getty Images

It’s official: the country’s top regulator of the internet wants to end net neutrality. Specifically, Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai plans to repeal changes that gave the agency the authority to enforce net neutrality protections—that is, rules requiring internet service providers to treat all internet traffic equally. But he won’t likely be able to do so without a big legal fight.

During a speech today in Washington, Pai announced his intention to undo one of the Obama-era FCC’s signature achievements. Although he was light on specifics (he plans to release the full text of his proposal tomorrow), Pai made clear that he would seek to reverse an FCC decision to classify broadband internet access providers as “Title II” common carriers, putting them in the same category as traditional telephone companies. The re-classification gave the FCC authority to impose net neutrality requirements on both wireless and home broadband providers, preventing them from, for example, charging specific sites or companies fees for sending traffic over their networks or slowing down competitors’ streaming video offerings.

“Going forward, we cannot stick with regulations from the Great Depression meant to micromanage Ma Bell,” Pai said.

The FCC will vote on—and given its Republican majority, likely pass—the proposal during an open meeting May 18. But that will only start what promises to be a lengthy battle for the future of net neutrality. To truly torpedo the requirements, Pai will have to make the case that he’s doing so for good reason.

A 1946 law called the Administrative Procedures Act bans federal agencies making “capricious” decisions. The law is meant, in part, to keep regulations from yo-yoing back and forth every time a new party gained control of the White House. The FCC successfully argued in favor of Title II reclassification in federal court just last summer. That effort means Pai might have to make the case that things had changed enough since then to justify a complete reversal in policy.

“That’s a pretty dramatic reversal,” says Marc Martin, chair of communications law at Perkins Coie. “Presuming there’s an appeal, a court may find that arbitrary.”

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So the FCC Head Says the Media Isn’t the Enemy. In 2017, That’s News – KLINT FINLEY 03.20.17 6:59 PM.


Christopher Gregory/The New York Times/Redux

Earlier this month, senators asked Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai whether he agreed with President Trump that the media is the enemy of the American people. Pai demurred, saying he didn’t want to wade into political debates.

Thirteen days later, he finally answered the question. No, he doesn’t think the media is the enemy. “A free media is vital to our democracy,” he wrote in a letter to Senate Democrats who continued to press the issue.

It’s through the FCC that the federal government could perhaps do the most damage to the media.

It’s a remarkable thing for any civil servant to have to say. But in the Trump era, it needed saying. Trump once said he has a “running war with the media.” He has promised to “open up” libel laws to expose journalists to more lawsuits (something he probably can’t constitutionally do). He threatened to sue the New York Times for reporting allegations of sexual harassment leveled against him. He has barred news organizations that have run unflattering stories about him from press briefings. Meanwhile, he has expanded access for outlets that cover him favorably.

But it’s through the FCC that the federal government could perhaps do the most damage to the media.

The agency could, in theory, deny broadcasting licenses for organizations that are critical of Trump or fast-track applications for groups that are less critical. And it could change media ownership rules to favor the White House’s preferred media brands. The public needs reassurance, in unequivocal terms, that the FCC chair wouldn’t be a party to such shenanigans.

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