A computer scientist, Wilhite led a team creating software compilers for the DECsystem-10 computer, particularly for BASIC and Fortran. Because it used a lot of the same computers, Wilhite was hired by Compu-Serv Network, Inc., owned by Golden United Life Insurance, and designed to provide computer time-sharing services to other businesses. The thing was, those expensive computers were mostly idle outside of business hours — nights and weekends. In 1977 the company changed its name to CompuServe, and two years later the business took a sudden turn: it offered dial-up online access to consumers. It was the first major commercial online service provider. He worked on multiple projects, including its Host Micro Interface, the B protocol for the CompuServe Information Manager, and chat software.
As the company expanded, it wanted to be able to provide graphics, such as simple weather maps. But they had to be small: at the time, users had 300 baud modems, and even a small picture could take quite some time to transmit. On the other hand, users often had monochrome monitors or, if color, with very limited resolution and color space. Wilhite, the company’s engineering lead, took on the problem. “I saw the format I wanted in my head and then I started programming,” he said. He had experience with the Lempel–Ziv–Welch (LZW) lossless data compression technique, and used that to compress the images without losing quality. It also had a fun aspect: it could embed multiple images as frames, plus timing information to switch among them to create an animated image. The result, released on June 15, 1987, was the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF. The first GIF was of a jetliner apparently moving through the sky. In reality only the clouds were “moving”; the jet is stationary, but the effect worked. As the World Wide Web took off a few years later, GIFs became even more popular.
Wilhite stayed with the company even after it was bought out by AOL in 1998, but he retired after having a stroke in 2000. One enduring controversy was over how GIF is pronounced: “giff” or “jif”? Wilhite was peeved: “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he said. “They are wrong.” It was deliberate that it was pronounced like the peanut butter, he said. “End of story.” He drove the point home when he won the 2013 Webby Lifetime Achievement award, which allows recipients just five words for their acceptance speeches. Due to his stroke, which left his speaking ability greatly affected, he produced his in writing — as a GIF: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ NOT ‘GIF’”. Stephen E. Wilhite died on March 14, at 74.