Tech Industry

QuickTime: Apple's golden egg?

As all eyes focus on Apple's upcoming operating system, the company is ready to push QuickTime even further.

Amid the past year's staff cuts, project cancellations, and huge losses at Apple Computer (AAPL), the QuickTime team has been one of the few shining lights. The division's popular group of software products has become the de facto standard for storing, transporting, and playing back multimedia files--indeed, one of Apple's greatest software triumphs in the 1990s.

But as all eyes focus on Apple's upcoming Rhapsody operating system, which will include the QuickTime Media Layer. The company is ready to push the QuickTime envelope even further in the next year with new technologies, possible license fees, and what observers hope will be a higher profile.

"QuickTime has been a mondo achievement and a great service to the multimedia business," said Jim Locker, creative director at multimedia production studio Red Dot Interactive. "It's been a major technology from Apple and has enabled the proliferation of digital video editing, but I don't feel they ever showcased it as it ought to be."

But Apple has recently been more active at promoting QuickTime as a "media meeting place" in the age of broadcast, desktop, and Internet convergence. QuickTime architect Peter Hoddie demonstrated this week at Worldwide Developer's Conference some of the features Apple will add to QuickTime by early 1998, including streaming over the Internet and QuickTime Interactive, the ability to add interactive elements or "sprites" to QuickTime movies and play them back on any QuickTime platform.

The added interactivity is necessary to give QuickTime an edge over the emerging MPEG video compression standard, which does a better job at delivering linear, noninteractive video, according to one developer.

"Our whole creation and edit environment is set up for QuickTime, and the only thing that's moving us away from that is MPEG," said George Reynolds, multimedia producer at Sumeria. "MPEG has jumped past QuickTime in image quality and frame rate, but MPEG has serious interactivity limitations. You can't play it backwards, for example."

QuickTime Interactive will be ready in early 1998. In addition to the ability to add interactive elements to QuickTime movies, QTI will preserve the interactive behavior of those elements across any QuickTime-enabled authoring tool.

"You'll be able to cut and paste the elements with wild abandon," said Stephan Somogyi, principal of technology consultancy Gyroscope.

With the ability to play back interactive sprites, QuickTime could also give Macromedia's Shockwave some competition as way to deliver Director files over the Internet, Somogyi said. Director is Macromedia's popular multimedia authoring application; Shockwave is the plug-in viewer for Director files on the Web.

Another major step in the strategy is to give non-Macintosh users full access to QuickTime. The upcoming version 3 will be released next quarter for both Macintosh and Windows and, for the first time, will let Windows users create QuickTime media files. The move to Windows is a double-edged sword for Apple. It exposes QuickTime creation to a larger audience, but there is also the risk of developers jumping to PCs at the expense of Apple's hardware sales.

Because of QuickTime's immense popularity, it's inevitable that Apple would eye the technology as a potential revenue stream. Surprisingly, the idea of license fees isn't necessarily anathema to Mac and Windows developers.

"I don't want to pay a license fee unless it's flat and cheap. I want to make a QuickTime movie and give it to somebody," said Red Dot's Locker.

Sumeria's Reynolds was more skeptical: "I doubt it'll happen. These playback technologies are historically very competitive, and in the end, people feel compelled to give it away for free. Apple is looking to generate revenue from any source these days, but my gut feeling is that they could try it but people will howl."

According to Hoddie, Apple is unlikely to charge licensing fees for either the Mac or Windows versions. But once the technology is ported to Unix--in the next 6 to 12 months, Hoddie said--license fees could come into play. There would less resistance in the Unix world because high-end graphic designers "are used to paying [licensing] fees," he added.

The release of QuickTime streaming later this year could also open up a new revenue opportunity, according to Locker. "On Unix, you'd need a QuickTime server. There's plenty of opportunity to sell the technology that would help stream movies."

The company is also working on integrating QuickTime into Java but won't announce specific product plans until it has a clearer sense of what end users would want from a synthesis of the two technologies, Hoddie said.

Caution is warranted, as Apple could end up piling QuickTime with so much technology that it ceases to fulfill its core competencies, a condition that often elicits complaints about the ever-expanding Web browser.

Still, if Apple continues to do QuickTime right, no one is likely to complain. "So far they're doing a good job piling stuff on," Reynolds said.