Happy birthday, Apple QuickTime
Released 20 years ago today
Apple's multimedia foundation, QuickTime, was released to the public 20 years ago today.
Initially provided as an Extension for the classic Mac OS – folk were running System 6 back then – QuickTime's ability to show tiny windows of video was premiered in May 1991 at Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference.
About QuickTime under System 7
The software's developer-in-chief, Bruce Leak – who would go on to join General Magic, Rocket Science Games and co-found WebTV – showed attendees a Mac running Apple's famous 1984 Macintosh ad.
Leak and his team continued to refine the codecs and the links that tied them into the operating system over the summer of 1991 until QuickTime was deemed ready for release.
QuickTime's first developers get their due
Apple released the software on 2 December 1991, and made it possible for computers to show video clips with synchronised sound out of the box. QuickTime 1.0 was first made available on a third-party CD-Rom, From Alice to Ocean a book-on-disk about a journey across Australia.
Apple's CEO at the time, John Sculley, formally launched QuickTime at Macworld Expo in January 1992.
QuickTime debuted on the CD-Rom From Alice to Ocean
But QuickTime's origins go back much further than 1991.
In the mid to late 1980s, Apple engineer Steve Perlman created QuickScan, code designed to allow the early Macs to run video. Perlman's technology even got a public demo from Sculley. The presentation – horses running from one side of the Mac's screen to the other – amazed the audience. Smooth video playback on a home computer screen had never been achieved before.
But it got no further. Apple cancelled the project. Part of the problem: QuickScan required its own, dedicated graphics chip, a massively-parallel graphics animation and video decompression part. Undoubtedly, the company baulked at the cost of getting into the chip business and what adding the part to the Mac would do to the price of the already expensive computer.
QuickScan coder Steve Perlman (left) and QuickTime 1.0 engineering lead Bruce Leak (right) today
However, the ground-breaking work would later provide the QuickTime developers with a lead into making video playback work. And they learned how to achieve in software what QuickScan – some of which would form the basis for 'Road Pizza', QuickTime's video codec – could do only with additional hardware.
Perlman would later co-found WebTV with QuickTime lead developer Bruce Leak. He now runs cloud gaming company OnLive .
Leak's initial release comprised three codecs, for video, animation and eight-bit images.
Tweaks would follow, culminating in the release of QuickTime 1.5 in November 1992, around the time Microsoft, jolted into action by QuickTime's debut the previous year, released Video for Windows. QuickTime 1.5 also ran on Windows.
QuickTime on Windows
Within two years, Apple and Microsoft were battling it out in the courts, the former accusing the software giant of ripping off its code.
In 1992, Apple contracted software developer San Francisco Canyon Co to port QuickTime to Windows, a rare cross-platform initiative from the Mac maker. However, it hoped the move would encourage PC software companies to use QuickTime and that, in turn, would steer them toward coding for the Mac. The following year, Intel hired SFCC to optimise Video for Windows for its latest x86 processors.
Intel CEO Andy Grove had been mightily impressed by QuickTime from the start, and had even persuaded Apple to create a version of the Mac OS that ran on Intel chips - the 'Star Trek' project - in order to get QuickTime running on PCs.
Before downloads, lad, we 'ad to use discs
By 1993, however, Microsoft had its alternative technology on the market, so Grove, perceiving that video would become a key feature of future computers, wanted video to work best on machines based on his company's products. SFCC was hired in July 1993 to create underlying driver code that would allow Video for Windows to deliver bigger, smoother video.
This was initially done without Microsoft's input, but the software company got to hear about it anyway. The result: a combination of efforts and the creation of Display Control Interface. SFCC's efforts on DCI were embedded into Video for Windows 1.1D, released in the Autumn of 1994.
Keenly aware of the importance of computer video, Apple scrutinised Video for Windows 1.1D closely. In December 1994, it filed a lawsuit against SFCC and, in February 1995, both Intel and Microsoft. It claimed to have found several hundred lines of QuickTime code in Video for Windows.
After the initial lawsuit was filed, Microsoft yanked the offending SFCC code. Video for Windows 1.1D would subsequently be re-released as 1.1E, circumventing a Federal judge's temporary ban on the distribution of Video for Windows.
The lawsuit would continue in and out of courts unresolved until August 1997 when Apple and Microsoft settled, part of the two firms' reconciliation followed long-departed co-founder Steve Jobs' return to Apple's helm that year.
QuickTime 3.0's Sorenson codec paved the way for Apple's movie trailer site
QuickTime itself had changed during that time. Version 1.5 had added the Cinepak – aka Compact Video – codec from SuperMac, a company that developed multi-processor technology for Macs. Cinepak added the ability to present subtitles over the video.
In 1993, QuickTime 1.6 brought fresh tweaks, while version 1.6.2 added support for Apple's new processor platform, PowerPC. February 1994 saw the release of QuickTime 2.0 and with it MIDI playback. The arrival of 2.1 and 2.5 saw enhanced music playback, the addition of sprites, and the ability to create and present panoramic VR-style images.
QuickTime Player through the ages: circa 1998...
QuickTime 3.0 gained the Sorenson video codec when it was released in March 1998. Sorenson's superior compression tech allowed coders to deliver much better results than they could achieve with Cinepak, and the move laid the foundation for Apple's popular movie trailers site.
QuickTime 4.0, released in June 1999, added the MPEG 1 Layer 3 audio codec - aka MP3 - to the software. Version 4.1 added support for variable bit-rate MP3s. July 2002's release of QuickTome 6.0 added MPEG 4 video and AAC audio - both key components of what would become Apple's iTunes content stores.
...and into the early noughties...
QuickTime is now at version 10.1 – under the QuickTime X brand – on Mac OS X, and 7.7.1 on Windows.
Looking back, it's easy to dismiss the early QuickTime – with its tiny image size and scratchy, low bit-rate sound – as a gimmick, but the technology was genuinely ground-breaking at the time of its release. Computers had shown video before, but not without some very expensive add-on technology. This was the first time video could be done on an ordinary home machine.
Software developers certainly appreciated the technology, and if many of the games and CD-Rom presentations that made use of it left a lot to be desired – video clips designed to blend into a pre-rendered background but failing to do so through a mix of misalignment and 8-bit colour dithering were commonplace – it was not through want of trying.
...and QuickTime X in 2011
And its plug-in architecture has allowed QuickTime to adopt, and developers to use, a wide array of open code standards. Even those not favoured by Apple can be inserted into the OS this way, as the successful Perian project  has shown. ®