The format supports up to 8 bits per pixel for each image, allowing a single image to reference its own palette of up to 256 different colors chosen from the 24-bit RGB color space. It also supports animations and allows a separate palette of up to 256 colors for each frame. These palette limitations make the GIF format less suitable for reproducing color photographs and other images with continuous color, but it is well-suited for simpler images such as graphics or logos with solid areas of color.
GIF images are compressed using the Lempel–Ziv–Welch (LZW) lossless data compression technique to reduce the file size without degrading the visual quality. This compression technique was patented in 1985. Controversy over the licensing agreement between the software patent holder, Unisys, and CompuServe in 1994 spurred the development of the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) standard. By 2004 all the relevant patents had expired.
In September 1995 Netscape Navigator 2.0 added Animated GIF support.
The feature of storing multiple images in one file, accompanied by control data, is used extensively on the Web to produce simple animations. The optional interlacing feature, which stores image scan lines out of order in such a fashion that even a partially downloaded image was somewhat recognizable, also helped GIF's popularity, as a user could abort the download if it was not what was required.
As a noun, the word GIF is found in the newer editions of many dictionaries. In 2012, the American wing of the Oxford University Press recognized GIF as a verb as well, meaning "to create a GIF file", as in "GIFing was perfect medium for sharing scenes from the Summer Olympics". The press's lexicographers voted it their word of the year, saying that GIFs have evolved into "a tool with serious applications including research and journalism".
In May 2015 Facebook added GIF support after originally rejecting support. Usage:
GIFs are suitable for sharp-edged line art (such as logos) with a limited number of colors. This takes advantage of the format's lossless compression, which favors flat areas of uniform color with well defined edges.
GIFs may be used to store low-color sprite data for games.
GIFs can be used for small animations and low-resolution film clips.
GIFs are commonly used as a medium for humorous effect. One or more video sources can be edited, rearranged, or combined to create an absurd juxtaposition, to create the opposite effect intended by the creator of the original work, or to emphasize and exaggerate a minor detail. Animated GIF
Basic animation was added to the GIF89a spec via the Graphics Control Extension (GCE), which allows various images (frames) in the file to be painted with time delays, forming a video clip. An animated GIF file comprises a number of frames that are displayed in succession, each introduced by its own GCE, which gives the time delay to wait after the frame is drawn. Global information at the start of the file applies by default to all frames. The data is stream-oriented, so the file-offset of the start of each GCE depends on the length of preceding data. Within each frame the LZW-coded image data is arranged in sub-blocks of up to 255 bytes; the size of each sub-block is declared by the byte that precedes it.
By default, however, an animation displays the sequence of frames only once, stopping when the last frame is displayed. Since GIF is designed to allow users to define new blocks, Netscape in the 1990s used the Application Extension block (intended to allow vendors to add application-specific information to the GIF file) to implement the Netscape Application Block (NAB). This block, placed immediately before all the animation frames, specifies the number of times the sequence of frames should be played. (The value 0 signifies continuous display.) Support for these repeating animations first appeared in Netscape Navigator version 2.0, and then spread to other browsers. Most browsers now recognize and support NAB, though it is not strictly part of the GIF89a specification.