ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Your News in Full-Color GIF —

A person seeking a real sense of innovation vertigo could not do much better than to browse issues of GIF News, an online distributed newsletter edited and maintained by Eric Hsiao from 1988 to 1993.

For example, it is worth noting that this is the full resolution of the earlier issues, 320 by 200 pixels. There’s no larger size available because there was simply no larger size made! As time went on, the average capabilities of systems were considered raised enough to make issues 640 by 480 pixels. (Here‘s an example of this greater expansion in screen real estate.)

As for the content of this newsletter itself, it’s important to note that the content was not about the GIF format itself (the Graphics Interchange Format is described in excruciating detail here), but simply used the GIF format to provide something that in 1988 was pretty unique for a person working out of upstate New York: a full-color, easily transmittable, completely static presentation of computer news. Because he had the 256 color palette to work from, Hsiao could intersperse color screen shots, artwork, and all range of unusual fonts. While not preceding the era of vector-based formats like Postscript, GIF News could produce a relatively low-size file (almost none exceed 100k in size) that could then be archived with other pages and transferred throughout the world.

This vertigo I speak of is evident in just browsing the set on Flickr that I have collected from various sources: in an instant, we see the result of years of work by Hsiao, all presented in a quilt of bright colors and (to our current eyes) incomprehensible text with barely-readable contrast issues. At one point, however, these images would be displayed in such a manner as to cover the entire screen, bringing the view up to anywhere from 9 to 16 inch monitors that were the standard of the time. That we now would not blink or be astounded at a near-instantaneous download of a 72k JPEG that utterly dwarfs this tiny GIF is a sign of how far we’ve come.

Beyond the transport mechanism, of course, is the content being discussed. The GIF News would only arrive every 60 days or so, and each issue would be at most four pages/images, so the ability to devour the content in a world with RSS feeds and news shooting at us by the bucketful blows through a given posting in no time. It would be unfair, again, to sit here in 2008 and compare what tools rest in our hands for generating an image-and-text newsletter and berate or sneer at Eric’s seemingly glacial release pace; every one of these pages could have been hours of painful adjustments and drawing, writing the articles and then carefully placing pixels or groupings around captured artwork. Imagine, for a moment, the creation of a page such as this with no advanced Photoshop or layout software:

This was, after all, a hand-crafted creation in a world that would soon turn even the most difficult of printing tricks into a double-click action. That he started to turn away to other concerns and put the newsletter on hiatus is hardly surprising.

The articles themselves range wildly but reveal another unexpected treasure: they show the pervasive effects of the BBS and its slow disintegration when faced with the Internet. A profile of the Channel 1 BBS reveals that the system is “huge – about 100 new messages in the main area a day”. Each day would also bring upwards of 40 uploads to the file directories. At one point the newsletter announces a new distribution system consisting of five bulletin board systems – an internet aspect is not to be found anywhere. Yet by 1992, addresses for Prodigy, Internet, Bitnet and BBS all share space in the contact area. Articles focus on modems but over time it is obvious there’s a new force on the horizon.

Technology long past, be it a type of soundcard or lists of the most popular software give us insight into what was popular at the time and where the thinking was. (Note also that the graph in the article was culled from a USENET newsgroup.) We are told that Laserdiscs are the future, and that Nintendo sent out threatening letters to every PC-Board operator because one specific pirate happened to use the software for a BBS that hosted Nintendo ROMs.

The full collection of what I could recover is here; I only could find issues from 1990 to 1993. Every once in a while an issue was missed, so there are apparent gaps but I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten all the released issues between those years.

This is one of those collections that’s both difficult and easy to provide: easy, because our fast systems are all able to show images at amazing speeds and collate and tag the resulting items quickly. But difficult, because these were all locked away in ZIP files and in some cases rather anonymous as to their contents. It’s certainly the first web access to the amount of issues in one place with such an easy interface. I hope I find more.

If you have a moment, leaf through the pages of this newsletter (after all, there are only 72 pages for 3 years) and enjoy a little insight into how people lived a mere 17 years ago.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. Jim Leonard says:

    This may not have been started in a vacuum, the PC Life diskmag preceeded it by two years and was mostly the same thing except 1. limited to CGA for compatibility and 2. professional (ie. professional writing, graphics, and coverage).

    Of course, being professional, it was a monthly subscription. But I have a few issues (how I wish I could collect them all!) and the CGA graphics are the very best I’ve ever seen in my life.

  2. Stephen B says:

    I had forgotten all about GIF News. Thank you for writing about it. Certainly brings back some memories.

  3. Chris says:

    GIF News had sort of the same “look and feel” of the old online services Quantumlink and Prodigy.

  4. Chris B says:

    These are great. What’s he doing now?