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Happy birthday, Apple QuickTime

Released 20 years ago today

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QuickScan

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.

Steve Perlman Bruce Leak

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 3 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.

QuickTime 3 disc

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.

QuickTime 3 specs

Apple's QuickTime 3 spec sheet
Click for full-size image

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.

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Next page: Codec compendium

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