Kickstarter Project Apngasm Wants To Promote Animated PNGs As An Alternative To GIFs

GIFs have remained so ubiquitous, spawning legions of apps, memes and NSFW Tumblrs, that it can be surprising to remember the bitmap image format is more than 25 years old. When compared to newer file formats, however, animated GIFs–with their limited palette and jagged distortions–really show their age. The apngasm Kickstarter wants to give designers more options by creating a simple editor for animated PNG (APNG) and developers libraries to integrate APNG support. The file format works similarly to GIF but offers better colors, image quality and the flexibility of PNG images. But APNG supporters face several major hurdles, including lack of support from Web sites and the original group that developed PNG.

The apngasm editing tool is based on the APNG Assembler by developer Max Stepin.

“Plenty of people are dissatisfied with GIF limitations: 256 colors and 1-bit transparency were good enough in the 1980s, but we’re in 2013 now,” Stepin told me by email. “It’s time to agree on something better.”

The quest to gain greater user traction of APNG has often seemed quixotic, in large part because it hasn’t received official support from the group of developers who created PNG. APNG was created in 2004 by Mozilla developers after the company dropped support for MNG (multiple-image network graphics) animations due to the large size of the code needed to implement it in Web sites. The PNG group, however, continued to reject APNG as a standard in favor of MNG because many felt that loading a single file type with both still and animation features was bad design (for a brief summary of APNG’s complicated history, see this blog post by Thomas Boutell, the editor of the original PNG specification and an APNG supporter).

The team behind the apngasm Kickstarter believes, however, that APNG can still gain traction among users frustrated by the limitations of animated GIFs. It’s working toward that goal by taking two-pronged approach. First, it will turn apngasm into an editing tool that will make creating APNG files even easier than GIF. Second, new open-source software tools will be made available to developers so they can easily add APNG support to their sites. Support for APNG is currently built into Firefox and Opera and can be added to Chrome with the APNG extension. (For a side-by-side comparison of the two formats, check out this link).

Developer Rei Kagetsuki, the creator of the apngasm Kickstarter, first became an APNG supporter while searching for a way to distribute animated images created by the Phantom Open emoji project. Phantom Open’s team wrote a converter to output their images to GIF, but felt the quality of the animations was subpar. They considered SVG (scalable vector graphics) animation, but ultimately decided that it did not have enough support. Kagetsuki was intrigued, however, by the quality of APNG as well as its backstory.

“We were actually surprised to find out that it hadn’t been implemented as a standard and that there was this controversy, so we went for it,” says Kagetsuki.

Despite its rejection by most members of the PNG group, APNG has lived on as “rogue standard.” Imgur, the image hosting service popular among Redditors, supports APNG and in Japan, where Kagetsuki is based, the format is still used by many of the artists who share their work on Pixiv.

Kagetsuki acknowledges that gaining further support for APNG will be a challenge, especially since many users are already accustomed to GIF. Even Kickstarter converted apngasm’s sample APNG images to standard PNG, meaning the project had to link to offsite examples. But Kagetsuki says if sites like Facebook and Twitter add APNG support, than other developers will quickly follow.

“I think the biggest thing that prevented any sort of movement was not having tools available. With apngasm, we will make tools available so users can create content. When users create content and try to put it up and see where it breaks, they will say we want to use APNG on your site. When the site develops it, they will be able to turn to the apngasm library and hopefully implement it easily,” says Kagetsuki.

He adds that APNG isn’t meant to replace GIFs, but give developers, Web site designers and artists more tools in their animation arsenal.

“There’s a retro feeling to GIF,” he says. “It’s like the pixel art of retro games, there’s a cuteness and familiarity to it. I think that’s one of the draws of GIF and it will continue to be a draw even if APNG becomes more widely accepted.”

The apngasm Kickstarter has already reached its base goal of $5,000 and is now aiming for its first stretch goal of $7,500, which will allow apngasm’s team to create a plug-in to export APNG from the Photoshop animation tool. Backers who give $10 or more will receive a license for the plug-in and further sales will continue to fund the development of APNG tools. Fundraising ends on September 8.