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Apple wiles revealed in QuickTime 4.1 SMIL support

Allows content creators to build ads into streamed media -- and Apple to sell more Macs

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Analysis Apple unveiled QuickTime 4.1 yesterday at the company-sponsored QuickTime Live event. Most of what lifts QT 4.1 above 4.0 are minor improvements -- better support for firewalls (previously a problem since firewalls generally don't handle QT's Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) well) and building in AppleScript support -- but two key features do stand out: seamless advert insertion and support for Synchronised Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL -- but pronounced 'smile', apparently), even though they're basically the same thing. SMIL is essentially a scripting language, not dissimilar to HTML, that allows Webmasters to co-ordinate the display of numerous media streams and files. It's a W3C standard -- version 1.0 is 'recommended'; the next release, codenamed Boston, was drafted earlier this year -- but one that hasn't won much support outside the streaming media world. To date, the only well-known media player to support SMIL is RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2 -- it isn't even supported by the leading Web browsers. RealNetworks' use of SMIL made sense as a way of adding extra functionality, cheaply. Since SMIL is an open standard, RealNetworks could easily incorporate it into its server and player software, and allow users to create complex presentations by sequencing multiple media strands. One of the key opportunities SMIL ads to a streamed media presentation is the ability to program in the appearance of other media on top of the main, say, video track. The makes it very easy to, say, place a regular banner ad on top of a video, or impose commercial breaks into a streamed movie. All very neat, of course -- unless you're the poor sod whose phone bill is rising by the second thanks to all the unwanted ads suddenly appearing in the latest Star Wars trailer. It's probably bandwidth issues that have kept RealNetworks from promoting RealSystems' SMIL support. Apple, however, is coming to this with Akamai's bandwidth-extending technology under its belt, so is less troubled by the practicalities of extending streamed media this way. More to the point, as a pretender to RealNetworks' streaming media crown, it needs to not only increase the number of features it can promote to content providers, but it needs to describe them in revenue generating terms, hence the focus on seamless advert insertion rather than, say, training presentations or videoconferencing, both of which can be made to work using streamed media and SMIL. The benefit could prove short lived, however. SMIL is a variety of XML, and since we'll soon all be using that as a baseline, everything will by definition support SMIL too. That could explain why Microsoft doesn't appear to have paid much attention to SMIL with its own streaming media efforts, and is instead cutting to the chase with XML. Be that as it may, QuickTime 4.1's SMIL-support should help Apple push its drive to win the backing of more content providers -- in turn leading to more sales of Macs as content creation systems. At the very least, by increasing the quantity and quality of QuickTime content out there, Apple can raise its profile among users in the hope that some of them will by a Mac next time they upgrade. In that respect, Apple's touting of QuickTime 4.1's ability to seamlessly integrate ads into streamed media is highly appropriate -- since QuickTime itself is ultimately one big ad for Apple computers. ®

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