In praise of the animated GIF

As I was helping to assemble Computerworld's 2008 holiday gift guide last week, I was initially puzzled as to why ThinkGeek, maker of the iconic Wi-Fi Detector Shirt (which lights up to show your proximity to a Wi-Fi signal), had used the Photoshop PSD format rather than the usual JPEG or TIFF image formats for the product photo.

ThinkGeek Wi-Fi Detector Shirt animation

Upon opening the file in Photoshop, I saw that it had several layers containing the same image with slight variations, which would translate nicely into the individual frames of an animated GIF. Sure enough, when I selected "Save for Web," the file was automatically saved as an animated GIF -- and I was instantly transported back to 1996, the animated GIF's heyday.

The venerable GIF89a image format, released by CompuServe in 1989, lets you store multiple images in the same file; the images are displayed one after another, like a flipbook. It's a great format for simple animations.

Animated GIFs were immensely popular in the Web's early years. They were quick to load (which was of paramount importance when most people were using dial-up), often silly and usually lots of fun. Remember the Hampster Dance [sic]?

Before too long, animated GIFs were pushed aside by more sophisticated tools for showing movement on the Web, such as JavaScript and Flash. Animations became much more complex, but at the same time Web pages became much heavier and slower-loading if you didn't have broadband. Now it seems as if half the commercial Web sites out there use Flash just for the sake of using Flash.

That's why I was so delighted to see ThinkGeek's animated GIF. While its uses are very limited, this format is still the best way to present a simple, mostly static image with small amounts of change -- like the Wi-Fi Detector Shirt product shot.

Kudos to the ThinkGeek folks for for using the simplest -- and best -- tool for the job.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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