Breakingviews – GIF inventor made few rich, but billions happy – Reuters.com

A man holds his mobile phone in downtown Mexico City, Mexico, February 3, 2021. Picture taken February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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NEW YORK, March 24 (Reuters Breakingviews) – The internet creates world-changing technologies and unimaginable fortunes – just not always at the same time. Stephen Wilhite, the inventor of the Graphics Interchange Format, who died on March 14, created a method of sharing color images that is now ubiquitous thanks to social networks like Twitter (TWTR.N) and Reddit. But the patents expired, and so did Wilhite’s employer CompuServe. That makes the GIF one of technology’s great examples of accidental philanthropy.

Wilhite cooked up a memory-efficient way of transferring color images in 1987, powered by a compression algorithm called Lempel-Ziv-Welch. As browser pioneer Netscape made the internet mainstream, GIFs and the looped animations they enabled websites to incorporate became a de-facto standard. But when CompuServe was acquired by AOL in 1998, the patents expired. Unisys (UIS.N), owner of the LZW algorithm, collected some fees from the use of GIFs for a while, but its patents expired too by 2004.

These days there are smoother, more efficient alternatives to the GIF. Yet the format is still ubiquitous, thanks mostly to smartphones. Memes built on GIFs have amused billions, from dancing bananas to Homer Simpson backing into a bush. The name – pronounced, according to Wilhite, with a soft “g” – is even applied to video clips that aren’t really GIFs at all. The word was Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2012, beating runners-up “Eurogeddon” and “Nomophobia.”

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And who got rich from this global success story? Almost nobody. While Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen remains a Silicon Valley power broker, the GIF is mostly a story of business failure. CompuServe was effectively shut down in 2009, and its remains ended up in telecoms giant Verizon Communications (VZ.N). Unisys, worth $10.2 billion in 2000 according to Datastream, has a market capitalization of $1.4 billion now. Wilhite died, according to his obituary, “a very humble, kind, and good man.”

Wilhite isn’t the only one to develop a technology whose value vastly outstrips its creators’ rewards. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, effectively gave away his creation for free – although he sold a non-fungible token representing ownership of the original source code last year for $5.4 million. While surging stock-market valuations have created billionaires like Facebook (FB.O) founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, the internet remains a place where popularity and profit don’t always come together.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are their own.)


– Stephen Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF file format, died on March 14 due to complications from Covid-19, NPR reported on March 23.

– Wilhite created the GIF while working for CompuServe in 1987, as a memory-efficient way to share color image files.

– CompuServe, one of the early providers of internet services, was ultimately acquired by Verizon, and effectively shut down in 2009.

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Editing by Robert Cyran and Pranav Kiran

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