10 Image File Formats That Time Forgot

Around this time 30 years ago, two separate working groups were putting the finishing touches on technical standards that would come to reshape the way people observed the world.

One technical standard reshaped the way that people used an important piece of office equipment at the time: the fax machine. The other would basically reshape just about everything else, becoming the de facto way that high-quality images and low-quality memes alike are shared on the internet and in professional settings.

They took two divergent paths, but they came from the same place: The world of compression standards. The average person has no idea what JBIG, the compression standard most fax machines use, is—but they’ve most assuredly heard about JPEG, which was first publicly released in 1992.

The JPEG format is awesome and culture-defining, but I tend to focus on the things that didn’t win—the more obscure, the more narrow, the less-mainstream elements of the world. With that in mind, here are 10 formats that didn’t quite go mainstream—nothing more, nothing less. If your favorite format is on this list, don’t take it personally.

 

NAPLPS graphics, as seen in the obscure cable channel Genesis Storytime.

1. The North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax (NAPLPS)

File type: Vector graphics

Most common file extension: .nap

This image format, one of the earliest in use by the broadcast industry, is one of the first efforts to build a portable format that can quickly deliver full graphics onto a screen. Developed by Canada’s Communications Research Centre as an offshoot of its Telidon system from the 1970s, this system came into wide use throughout the Canadian television industry (including the early cable channel Genesis StoryTime, which we covered in 2018), before making the jump to PCs.

Later on, it became a central element of the Prodigy system that Sears and IBM introduced in the late ’80s—and the platform survived into the ’90s as a result.

Pcpaint_000.png

PC Paint, one of the earliest drawing programs on the IBM PC. Image: Wikipedia

2. BSAVE graphics

File type: Raster image

Most common file extension: .BSV, .PIC

This format has a more direct lineage with the IBM PC. This isn’t really a distinct format so much as a way to save a raw image of what’s on the screen using the BSAVE command offered in various versions of Microsoft QuickBasic. (To load the image, of course, you use BLOAD.)

This works in many versions of Microsoft BASIC, the closest thing that there was to a truly cross-platform application during the early years of the personal computer industry. Because of BSAVE’s widespread use, early digitizer tools such as the VersaWriter drawing board relied on BSAVE to store screen-drawn graphics that could be re-displayed later.

The format is notable in the history of drawing programs, despite its hackneyed nature, because the approach was used with PCPaint, the very first drawing app for the IBM PC that used a mouse and a graphical interface. Microsoft was so concerned about the company that made PCPaint, Mouse Systems, that the MS-DOS maker licensed software from its largest competitor to make a drawing app of its own. Which brings us to …

 A sample of PC Paintbrush in action; a variant of this application became Microsoft Paint.

3. .PCX File Format

File type: Raster image

Most common file extension: .PCX

If you used Microsoft Paint (then known as Paintbrush) with Windows 3.0 circa 1990, you’re probably aware that it could save files in two formats. The PCX format was one, and at the time of Paint’s release, it was by far the most common of the two.

The reason was simple: The .PCX format was associated with PC Paintbrush, a hugely popular program in the days before Windows, so much so that it became a de facto standard for image editing in the days before GIF and JPEG. (As mentioned above, Microsoft literally white-labeled a version of PC Paintbrush to give us Microsoft Paint.) While .PCX faded out of view as higher-resolution raster formats became more common, it nonetheless was one of the most dominant image formats on the IBM PC during the late 1980s.

(There was also a third format, the quickly forgotten .MSP format, which was specific to Microsoft Paint’s early versions, and is so obscure that it was actually deprecated by Microsoft before most people had a chance to use it. The version of Paint in Windows 3.0, the first version of Windows many people actually used, could only open—not save—MSP files. MSP files were 1-bit quality and generally were out of date by the early ’90s.)

The reason for that? The format was specifically tied to the graphical capabilities of the IBM PC—which meant it was built around CGA, EGA, and VGA, according to the Encyclopedia of Graphics File Formats(yes, a real book!). There is a degree of compression going on with this format, but it’s not particularly effective; a focus on compression would not emerge until later formats such as GIF and JPEG.

 A person making a somewhat compelling case to save your files in TIFF format instead of Photoshop’s native PSD format.

4. Tag Image File Format (TIFF)

File type: Raster image

Most common file extension: .TIFF, .TIF

This file format came to fruition during the mid-1980s, when the desktop publishing craze was coming into focus, and is a creation of Aldus, the developers of the groundbreaking PageMaker, with help from Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. A tag-based file format, it came into wide use in large part because PageMaker was the publishing industry’s tool of choice in the industry’s early days. Aldus was quick to standardize the format, and when Adobe purchased the company in 1994, Adobe continued to maintain the standard.

It came at an important time as well, as it helped to standardize the industry’s needs around scanners at a pivotal time for the field. “Desktop publishers and scanner manufacturers prefer TIFF because it offers portability between the Mac and the PC, reducing the time it takes to bring products to market for both systems,” PC Magazine writer Tom Stanton wrote of the format’s appeal in a 1987 article.

Of the formats listed here, TIFF is probably the one most likely to still be in wide use, but it has evolved into a more specialized format for professionals, in comparison to something like JPG. It’s not mainstream anymore, even if it lives on in some specific use cases.

An hour-long instructional video on advanced techniques in DeluxePaint. Skim through it and get blown away.

5. ILBM IFF Interleaved Bitmap

File type: Raster image

Most common file extension: .IFF

This Amiga-centric file format, created by Electronic Arts in the 1980s for its popular DeluxePaint program, saw leaps in innovation that quickly made the efforts by PC Paintbrush seem a bit old hat. While it was mostly used for sound and image data on the PC according to the ‌Encyclopedia of Graphics File Formats, it played more fundamental roles as a general purpose file format on the groundbreaking Amiga.

As the Archive Team notes, the Amiga’s quirks cut both ways, leading to numerous variations on the IFF format that were designed to work with specific types of applications or were specially coded to work with the Amiga’s quirky hardware design.

“The format basically remained unchanged since its specification was released in 1985, but many extensions to the format have been created and documented by a great many software developers, making IFF one of the most utilized formats of today,” the 1996 book stated.

image3.jpg

An ad for the Truevision Targa system during the period AT&T owned it. Image: Internet Archive

6. Truevision TGA (TARGA)

File type: Raster image

Most common file extension: .TGA

The IFF format may have become closely associated with the hardware needs of the Amiga, but TGA was literally a byproduct of some of the earliest dedicated video hardware for the IBM PC. Originally developed by AT&T and spun off into its own company in the late 1980s, TGA was one of the first file formats capable of “true color” with the help of its hardware-based image-processing tools. As the Library of Congress notes, it was even capable of transparency effects, a big deal for its time.

“Truevision went on to pioneer the desktop digital video editing industry with the introduction of the Targa videographics card in 1987 that would run in a PC,” the IEEE Computer Society wrote of Truevision’s efforts. “In that same year, NewTek announced its Amiga-based video capture board, the Video Toaster, but didn’t actually release it until 1990, so Targa truly was the first.”

While not as common today as some other image formats, it does have its use cases in 2021—Valve, for example, uses a variation of the Targa file format, .VTF, to store images in Steam.

image5.png

An example of a RIP-drawn graphic. Image: Archive Team

7. RIP Graphics (aka RIPscrip)

File type: Vector graphics

Most common file extension: .RIP

This drawing format was effectively Flash for the BBS era, allowing for significant graphical capabilities on low-speed connections at a time when low-speed connections were basically the rule of the road—and it led to a lot of creativity in the sector, along with many attempts to create a GUI-style interface for bulletin board systems. Like Flash, it prized compression; unlike Flash, it was built for the quirks of MS-DOS, and produced by a company without any significant Silicon Valley ties.

As I wrote last year, the format’s popularity with bulletin boards did not easily translate to the broader web, which was effectively a much bigger pond than dial-up was … and in response, TeleGrafix tried and failed to sell the world on telnet being the next big thing in consumer internet access, as opposed to the Web.

image2.png

Microsoft Paint, then known as Paintbrush, showing a BMP file in all its glory.

8. .BMP file format

File type: Raster image

Most common file extension: .BMP, .DIB

This file format is effectively Microsoft’s most notable gift to the world of image standards. First developed for Microsoft Windows and OS/2 in the late ’80s, the format is generally highly capable of high-color image displays, and, along with .PCX, is one of the two formats utilized by Microsoft Paint during its early-’90s glory days.

The BMP format was a bit of a mess, however. The version prior to the one used in Windows 3.0 was described by PC Magazine as “perhaps the worst bitmap file format ever devised,” in part because of its inconsistency. The format, noted author Charles Petzold, would often change between different versions of Windows and OS/2, and did not gain “device independent” status until Windows 3.0. The real killer, however, was its status as a pre-internet image format without an emphasis on compression, which meant that BMP would prove poorly suited for where the computer industry was going.

“BMP files are usually not compressed and, therefore, are not well suited for transfer across the Internet,” the company warns in a documentation website.

Examples of VRML graphics from the ’90s. Admittedly, they would not have looked nearly this good in 1995—our graphics technology quickly superseded it.

9. Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML)

File type: Vector graphics, animation, interactive

Most common file extension: .WRL, .WRZ

If you’ve been rolling your eyes at all the sudden talk about the metaverse, you should just know that we’ve been going down this general road for at least a quarter-century. VRML, an early 3D-graphics format, was one of the first image formats developed specifically for the web (as well as one of the first developed with standards in mind, rather than a corporate product retrofitted for the purpose), and its hype was actually very similar to the metaverse chatter Mark Zuckerberg and company have been throwing at us in recent weeks. Both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator natively supported the format in their software in the late ’90s.

The hype around this format was breathless, with lots of media coverage in the mainstream press (rather than just the trade press, though there was that, too), despite the fact that few people actually had the chance to use it. There is probably a discussion to be had about the fact that an open standard for digital graphics lost out to the proprietary Flash, but VRML seems like a great thing to revisit given the fact that a company we should all be calling Facebook seems to be drawing attention to the same basic idea.

image4.jpg

Image: Nokia

10. Wireless Application Protocol Bitmap Format

File type: Raster image

Most common file extension: .WBMP

It wasn’t that long ago when most of our phones could only display graphics in a single color. (All you Nokia users out there playing Snake, you know I’m pointing at you.)

And it’s with that in mind that the WBMP format came to life; the Wireless Application Protocol Forum (now folded into the still-active Open Mobile Alliance) developed the format in the late ’90s with the expectation that screens could only handle single-color images (though, in a pinch, it could also support more common formats like JPG or PNG).

“WAE provides a visual environment that is designed to address several competing requirements, including support for multiple pixels depths, support for colourspace tables, small encoding, very low CPU and RAM decoding and presentation demands and allowance for commonly available tools and support,” the standards document states.

Effectively, WBMP standardized graphics of the level one could get on a Game Boy a decade prior for millions of early cell phones.

It’s easy to take for granted just how good our image formats are. They allow for a vibrancy in visual communication that a few decades ago, we just didn’t have.

At the beginning of the personal computer industry, we had to build de facto standards out of popular applications or borrow technology from the broadcast industry to build out our images. Soon, we had to think about things like compression and portability—and the formats that did not do that, like BMP, quickly fell by the wayside.

Even the limitations of a historically limited format like GIF, a file format that evolved from Compuserve to maintain a continued role as one of the internet’s most popular file formats (of which I know well, as someone who builds a new GIF for every issue of this newsletter) have their inherent charm.

But by chance or by technical limitation, the above formats did not become well-known to the mainstream public in the way that JPG, GIF, and PNG did. (Some, like PCX, once were.) Some modern formats, like WebP, HEIC, and SVG, are gaining ground in the mainstream consciousness, but it takes a mixture of standardization, technical advantage, common use case, and consumer uptake to build a popular image format, and not every format can be a hit.

The ones that did break through found that combination, and that combination did not involve improved compression in fax machines.

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