• The death and re-birth of animated emoji

    If you’re reading this, in English, then it’s very possible you have no idea about emoji and their evolution before the smart phone. In fact, you may not even be aware that there was a rich market of emoji with stiff competition, where phone vendors actually advertised how much better their emoji (and other rich-text content) were compared to others. The reality is, before the era of the smartphone, the big thing in emoji was animation.

    The actual history of animated emoji is a bit difficult to follow, but from what I can put together it starts with Japan’s own version of the mobile internet. Transmission was charged in chunks of packets, so a few extra bytes on a popular mobile page alone could add up to a huge data charge across everyone’s bills. The same goes for messages/SMS where even adding a little tiny GIF animation would end up costing something like 10 Yen in packet fees! So, emoji were created in the open area of the character code pages and handsets were pre-loaded with images.

    Text views on these mobile devices weren’t plain text, they were basically web-views that only supported a specific type of proto-HTML often referred to as cHTML [compact HTML]. cHTML had a few unique features; one being it only supported the Shift-JIS code set, it only supported a specific format of GIF [no JPEG!?], and it treated certain code points as anchors for things like emoji, sounds, or interactive functionality like in-page links using the phone keypad [accesskeys] (EG: menus were often prefixed with a number pad emoji, and hitting that key on your physical keypad would click the link/menu item). In other words, emoji were not a font, they were little packages of functionality that were anchored to character codes in the page. emojidex stays true to this, our emoji are not a font but rather little bits of code and images that cap over code points in the text – but that’s another article entirely.

    This gave birth to things like deco-mail and, because GIF was part of the standard, animated emoji. Soon the phone market exploded in competition almost entirely around who had the richest decorative content loaded on their handsets, and emoji were the crown jewels. I still remember walking into phone shops and seeing placards sitting on the counters displaying their latest emoji with a section of it marked off as animated.

    SoftBank emoji that appeared on iOS

    A lot of people think that Apple came up with emoji, which they didn’t. In fact, Apple begrudgingly made their own emoji at the behest of SoftBank, and even then they only did so after SoftBank released their own proprietary apps with their own set of emoji for the iPhone to try and make up for the lack of emoji. You can view that set here if you’re curious what the *first* emoji to be shown on an Apple device looked like. This didn’t add emoji support to every app on the iPhone mind you, only in these special apps from SoftBank such as their proprietary mail and chat applications. Apple finally caved, and created their own set of native emoji, and then locked them to only be visible on Japanese handsets! Yes, if you dig back through the history of the iPhone you’ll find a short lived era [2012~2013?] where people were jailbreaking or running various hacks on their non-Japanese iPhones just to unlock emoji.

    So, as you know, Apple finally made emoji available to everyone, and this was the point where emoji blew up outside of Japan. The Apple emoji were not popular in Japan at the time (and arguably still aren’t) for a few reasons. There’s a lot of lost-in-translation graphics (which is another article entirely), they went from peach colored faces with blushing cheeks to shiny yellow smileys, and there’s no animation.

    When Apple implemented emoji, they implemented them as a font, and aside for some recent experimentation fonts don’t support animation. In fact, at the time, Apple had to modify their fonts system just to display multi-colored glyphs – but there was apparently never a serious consideration for animation; which emojidex hopes to change.


    At the moment emojidex is running a campaign to try and bring back animated emoji. Toward the start of the emojidex project the emojidex team chose APNG instead of GIF, because it offered higher quality and often smaller sizes and also graceful fall-back (anything that doesn’t support APNG simply shows the first frame of the animation). To incorporate it, they ran a campaign to update the best APNG processing library and incorporated it into their system. Shortly after, APNG support started popping up in a variety of apps, and is now the only high-definition animated image format (excluding video formats wrapped as images such as GIF-V and WEBM) supported on all major browsers. If all goes well and we receive enough support you can expect the emojidex artists to pump out a steady stream of revised and refined animated emoji in high quality made available in Animated PNG format.


Project lead for emojidex. I like OSS, Ruby, C++, and cars.