QuickTime prepared to make its comeback

Apple's technology has been pushed aside since the advent of the Internet, but it may be poised for a revival with an emerging video standard called MPEG-4.

Evan Hansen Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Department Editor Evan Hansen runs the Media section at CNET News.com. Before joining CNET he reported on business, technology and the law at American Lawyer Media.
Evan Hansen
7 min read

How QuickTime paces the pack (10:43)
Peter Hoddie, president, Generic Media

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If you have ever used your PC to play music or watch the Victoria's Secret fashion show on the Net, now is the time to pay tribute to the technology that made it all possible: Apple Computer's QuickTime.

Ten years ago this month, Apple released the gold code, or final test version, of its breakthrough multimedia software, allowing video to be played directly on the Macintosh without add-ons such as a laser disc or video monitor.

QuickTime changed forever the view of the personal computer as just a desktop publishing tool and game platform, setting off a flurry of innovation that now threatens television as the dominant entertainment hub in the home.

Like so many other products first popularized by Apple, however, the legacy of QuickTime has been to inspire and create opportunities for others, even as Apple's own efforts have languished. After closing off its technology to outside developers for much of the 1990s, the company was blindsided by the arrival of the Internet--giving rivals RealNetworks and Microsoft a chance to steal a market that many believed Apple should own.

QuickTime still has sway in the film and video world--it is the exclusive format for the new "Star Wars" trailers on the Net, for example--but has almost no presence in online music, the fastest-growing segment of the digital entertainment market. In a sign of its underdog status, Apple is tying the future of the technology to the acceptance of a new digital video standard known as MPEG-4.

"The Internet snuck up on us," said Peter Hoddie, a former QuickTime development team leader who runs Generic Media, a start-up formed with the goal of creating interoperability between competing digital media formats.

A thin line between technology and art
From its inception, QuickTime seized the imagination of artists and geeks alike.

Hoddie recalls being embarrassed by the audio quality during a demo of an early version of the software for Brian Eno, the experimental musician who helped pioneer the use of synthesizers in the 1970s before going to produce albums for acts such as U2. The artist heard something different, however.

"I was apologetic because the audio quality was not so great," he said. "But Brian said it was OK, that every medium had its own characteristics that people would discover and appreciate."

In 1993, musician Peter Gabriel used QuickTime to create "Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World"--a multimedia CD-ROM aimed at exposing his creative processes to fans through interviews and videos interspersed with music.

Other artists have also gravitated to the format, including Prince, who uses QuickTime for videos on his Web site.

apple chart In 1999, filmmaker George Lucas used QuickTime exclusively to distribute online trailers of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," giving Apple a huge boost when 1 million people downloaded the clip in the first 24 hours of its release. The latest "Star Wars" trailer is also exclusively available in QuickTime.

In addition to musicians and filmmakers, QuickTime had an early influence on video game designers, allowing realistic graphics for the moody environment behind "Myst," for example.

"That proved that you could use video in the service of a greater goal," Hoddie said. "There are moments when you look out in 'Myst' and there are birds flying in the background--not serving any particular purpose for the game other than to make the experience richer."

But QuickTime's early successes sent rivals including Microsoft scrambling to catch up with its technology, or neutralize it.

In testimony in the Microsoft antitrust case, Avadis Tevanian, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, alleged that the software giant pressured Apple in a series of meetings in 1997 to withdraw products that computer users needed for playing multimedia files. In return, he added, Microsoft said it would allow Apple to market tools that software developers used to create multimedia content.

In particularly memorable testimony disputed by Microsoft, Apple executives said their Redmond, Wash., counterparts were "talking about knifing the baby," a reference to QuickTime software.

The discussions between Apple and Microsoft about QuickTime were rooted in a legal tussle that started in early 1995, stemming from Apple's efforts to make QuickTime compatible with Windows. Apple alleged that Microsoft and Intel had illegally copied portions of its QuickTime for Windows product after hiring a third party Apple had used to help develop the software.

The companies settled the dispute more than a year later, with Apple agreeing to bundle Microsoft's Internet Explorer as the preferred browser with Macintosh computers. The company received a $150 million investment in return.

Hoddie conceded that the effort to make QuickTime compatible with Windows distracted the company at a crucial inflection point in the industry. Rather than quickly move to optimize QuickTime for the Internet, the company remained focused on the desktop. As a result, despite its early lead, it came late to the market for streaming media.

"In the mid-90s, we decided that the primary goal was to get to Windows compatibility," he said. "We were incredibly successful in that goal, achieving interoperability between 1997 to 1998 with the release of QuickTime 3...(But) that created an opening for (RealNetworks) that shouldn't have existed."

Apple declined to comment for this story.

Although both RealNetworks and Microsoft admit that much of their technology was inspired by QuickTime, they downplay its importance now.

"Clearly in the early days they were very serious about doing audio and video integration. But when the Internet came along they were very quiet, and we took that opportunity to get ahead," said Amir Majidimehr, Microsoft's general manager for audio-video technology. "They woke up a year and a half ago."

Pegging the future to MPEG-4
Even as Apple celebrates QuickTime's 10th anniversary, the company is aiming to create a new beginning for its storied technology; as it incorporates the MPEG-4 standard into QuickTime, the media player is on the verge of undergoing its most significant overhaul since adopting streaming capabilities four years ago, according to digital media experts.

MPEG-4 is a standard being promulgated by a consortium of industry heavyweights including Apple, Cisco Systems, IBM, Kasenna, Philips Electronics and Sun Microsystems, but pointedly not by streaming media leaders RealNetworks and Microsoft, which are promoting their own proprietary technologies. The proposed standard would succeed MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, which fueled the MP3 Internet music revolution.

Apple has put its own mark on the MPEG-4 standard with the contribution of the QuickTime file format, but MPEG-4 technologists stress that--contrary to popular belief--QuickTime is only one of many technologies that form the standard.

"It's a common misconception--people think that the MPEG standard is based on QuickTime," said Rob Koenen, chairman of the MPEG Requirements Group. MPEG-4 "was started in 1994. QuickTime was adopted as the file format in 1997. MPEG-4 is much bigger than a file format--it includes many audio and video codecs; it has a scene description language originally based on VRML but made efficient, binary and streamable; it has support for graphics; it incorporates Java interfaces called MPEG-J; it has standard interfaces for digital rights management systems."

Since QuickTime's comparatively weak entry into the streaming market, the format has struggled to make significant gains against RealNetworks and Microsoft. But analysts predict that a widespread adoption of the MPEG-4 standard could help QuickTime vault into a more competitive position.

The effect of MPEG-4 on QuickTime "is going to be huge," said Bill Bernat, technical editor at Streaming Media, a San Francisco media company that produces trade shows, editorial content and research reports. "The entire nature of QuickTime is going to move from an advanced but proprietary technology to an interoperable technology. And interoperability will change pretty much all of streaming. QuickTime may not be the only winner, but it could be part of a group that will dominate streaming media and possibly other forms of digital media."

Significant technical, licensing and marketing hurdles remain before MPEG-4 gains enough traction to affect the streaming media scene, however. Patent holders whose technologies were incorporated into MPEG-4 are in the process of hammering out nondiscriminatory licensing terms, a prerequisite for creating a landscape in which the technology is interoperable in more than name.

Once the licensing questions are resolved, companies will still need to put products on the market. Streaming Media predicts a "slew" of such products in the first half of 2002 from well-known companies including Apple, Cisco and Philips, but also from more obscure companies such as Envivio and Ivast, providers of MPEG-4-compatible software, and Sigma Designs and Vweb, which are making chipsets.

Chipset makers--which make products for set-top boxes, videophones and other computing devices--like the idea of a standard technology because even subsequent versions will be backward-compatible. Hardware based on proprietary technologies, by contrast, is subject to obsolescence without notice.

Analysts predict that rather than pursue an "embrace and extend" strategy, Microsoft and RealNetworks will stick to their guns and continue marketing their own formats. Although those products will not have MPEG-4's interoperability, the companies say advantages include smaller file size, better image and sound quality, and more advanced digital rights management software. Both RealNetworks and Microsoft have invested heavily in creating anti-copying technology that would make it safe for record labels and other content owners to sell their products online.

The rights management question may be MPEG-4 and QuickTime's Achilles' heel, at least for now, as the market hinges on what formats content providers choose for their programming.

"In order for (MPEG-4) to succeed as a standard, it has to be used," said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst with IDC. "Windows is gaining traction, and Real is working hard to retain its significant installed base. So it's going to be critical for content providers to make their content available in MPEG-4, and then the QuickTime player has a much better chance of regaining traction against Microsoft and Real."