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Stephen Wilhite, creator of GIFs, passes away

Stephen Wilhite, creator of GIFs, passes away
Stephen Wilhite  |  Photo Credit: The Webby Awards Archive
24 Mar, 2022
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Stephen Wilhite, the creator of the Graphics Interchange Format (of GIFs, as you’d know them), passed away last week aged 74, according to a report on the matter by The Verge. Wilhite invented the standard about four decades ago, when he was employed by American technology services company, CompuServe – which, incidentally, was the first major online commercial services provider from USA, back in the day.

Interestingly, Wilhite seemingly created GIFs for CompuServe as a medium to distribute what is described as high quality, high resolution graphics in full colour in the early days of the internet. GIFs therefore served as a way for a select few privileged users to share graphical content through, that too in colour.

The technology was invented in the day when internet speeds were staid, at their very best. Reports from the 1980s suggest that in USA, if you were among those with great connectivity, you could have enjoyed bandwidth of around 300 bits per second. This further underlines the relevance of the GIF back in the day, which would have largely qualified as a heavy utility meant for specific tasks back then.

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Today, GIFs find commonplace application in mainstream situations, such as sharing of memes and related content on social media platforms. Given that some of the most basic internet bandwidth offered today are at least to the tune of 30 megabits per second (in India), GIFs are no longer the high resolution content medium that it was built for.

However, this has never stopped debates from persisting over what exactly are GIFs to be called. Wilhite put the debate to rest in 2013 by stating that the right pronunciation is “jif”, overruling the Oxford Dictionary’s ambiguity in this case.

CompuServe, however, has taken a far worse trajectory than GIFs, which are today a significant part of popular culture. Back in the 1980s, the big three of online information services included America Online Limited (better known as AOL), Prodigy and CompuServe itself. In 1997, the company was acquired by AOL, which was one of its competitors in similar sectors.

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Interestingly, AOL itself was acquired by Verizon in 2015, and in 2017, after the latter also acquired Yahoo, CompuServe became a part of Oath Inc – an online media and technology conglomerate of sorts.