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The tired GIF gets a modern-day makeover

Imgur's new GIFV format means animated images load faster, look better and play when shared on social networks. Will the 1987-era GIF format finally fade from use?

Imgur's GIFV format, which repackages bulky animated GIFs into a video file that behaves the same way, compresses to much smaller file sizes.
Imgur's GIFV format, which repackages bulky animated GIFs into a video file that behaves the same way, compresses to much smaller file sizes. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

It's not exactly a death knell, but the tremendously popular image-sharing website Imgur this week dealt a severe blow to the archaic but trendy animated GIF format standard.

The decades-old GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) lets people create silent, auto-playing, perpetually repeating animations, and it's found a particular techno-fashionable niche on sites like Imgur, Yahoo's Tumblr and Google+ auto-awesome animations. But animated GIFs are saddled with big weaknesses, including a very limited 256-color palette and bloated file sizes.

Those problems are why Imgur introduced a new format it calls GIFV. It's short for GIF Video -- but in practice, it's actually just plain old Web video that's packaged to behave like an animated GIF. When a person uploads an animated GIF to Imgur, the company transcodes it into video compressed with the H.264 standard and tucked inside an MP4 file container.

"The converted MP4s are significantly smaller than their equivalent GIFs, which allows them to load at lightning-fast speeds with better quality," Imgur said Thursday in a blog post about GIFV. "By lowering bandwidth consumption, the change also optimizes Imgur for users on mobile. Rejoice!"

Rejoice, indeed. The GIFV images should play in animated form when shared socially on Twitter or Facebook, and Imgur lifted the upload file size limit from 5MB to 50MB. That should make it easier for Imgur to run its business -- offering a massive community a place to share and discuss images of cute pets, mysterious trap doors, peons to astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and actress Jennifer Lawrence, edgy Web comics, unusual marriage proposals, high-end cosplay and countless Internet memes.

Killing off animated GIFs won't be easy, though. New file formats arrive -- Google hopes people will embrace its WebP format, which includes animation support -- but the Web pages already published don't stop using the old ones. And the retro chic of animated GIF seems to be part of its appeal.

Imgur was founded five years ago by Alan "MrGrim" Schaaf (center). Steve Jennings/WireImage

Imgur (pronounced "imager") has heavy influence, though. Launched five years ago by Alan "MrGrim" Schaaf to improve image sharing for users of the Reddit discussion site, Imgur exploded in popularity to become the 46th most visited site on the Internet, according to analytics site Alexa. Two years ago, it had 45 million unique visitors in a month and 2.3 billion page views, transferring 4.1 petabytes of data with 33 billion image views. It's only become more popular since then, reportedly drawing the acquisition interest of Yahoo.

Imgur clearly wants others to follow in its footsteps. It plans to propose GIFV as a standard to either the Internet Engineering Task Force or the World Wide Web Consortium before the end of the year.

GIF history

GIF got its start in 1987 as a graphics format for the CompuServe online service, a once-popular destination for online activity in the days before the Internet went mainstream. Its usage accelerated when the World Wide Web arrived the next decade, but the tech community put on the brakes as Unisys began patent enforcement action for the compression technology GIF uses. That patent expired, but GIFs limits meant it had few allies other than sheer momentum.

And GIF is certainly in decline. According to the HTTP Archive, which tracks the actual construction of more than 290,000 Web pages, GIF has dropped from 29 percent of browsers' image requests in October 2012 to 24 percent in October 2014.

Supplanting it has been PNG (Portable Network Graphics), which has grown from 25 percent to 28 percent, and JPEG, which rose from 44 percent to 46 percent. PNG is well suited to the sorts of graphics that GIF often handles -- company logos for example -- and it was specifically designed to address GIF's shortcomings.

Better video compression

GIF's compression and color palette limits make it ill-suited to many still images, and the problem is is exacerbated with videos. Any website using them has to reckon with relatively big files that can be slow to load and slow to start playing.

H.264 can cut file sizes dramatically in comparison. It's better suited to videos of real-world subjects and has more sophisticated interframe compression, technology that takes advantage of the fact that sequential frames in video often are very similar.

How much better is video compression than animated GIF? In Imgur's example, the original 50MB animated gif shrunk to a 3.6MB GIFV file.

Google also offers a video compression technology designed specifically for the Web, VP8, VP9 and soon VP10, packaged in the WebM container. But Imgur chose not to use it, Schaaf said.

"We considered various video formats and decided to use H.264/mp4," Schaaf said in a post last week about the GIFV move. "Browser and OS support for it is better and the fidelity is much more stable. Simple as that."

There are some hiccups. For example, on devices using Google's Android operating system, music will stop playing when a GIFV starts -- a problem Imgur said it expects a fix. In addition, some GIFV files have shown problems automatically starting, and Imgur's encoding approach seems in some cases to show frame-rate errors.

But Imgur clearly feels GIFV hiccups are better than unfixable GIF problems.

"We hope these changes deliver an improved GIF experience on Imgur with more fun and less frustration, optimizing it for all of the changes that have happened on the Internet since the format was first introduced in 1987," the company said.

Updated at 12:23 a.m. Oct. 10 to correct that animated GIF does support some frame-to-frame compression.