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QuickTime Rules

John Sculley chortled slightly as he said, "Remember, I’ve been talking about multimedia for the last four years." This year he could afford to chortle as QuickTime stole the show. Apple boasted right and left that over 100 shipping applications at the show supported QuickTime, and they even had a special room dedicated to showing QuickTime-savvy applications. Perhaps the most impressive though, were the demos during Sculley’s keynote address, and I was pleased to see one was a video conferencing system, something I suggested many months ago.

Videophones are a fascinating idea, and people who don’t want them because of concerns about callers seeing them as they rush from the shower are indeed all wet. In the immortal words of Captains Kirk and Picard of Star Trek, "On screen." With any sort of privacy-invading technology, the end user must retain complete control, which is why you don’t have to talk to everyone who makes your telephone ring. Same thing with videophones – you’ll have to consciously turn on the video, so if you’re buck naked and dripping wet when your grandmother calls, you need not worry.

Enough philosophy. During the keynote, Sculley used a normal Mac and a normal telephone line along with some slightly special hardware consisting of (I presume) a seriously fast modem, some sort of video camera, a real-time digitizing and compression board from Workstation Technologies Inc. (WTI), and special video conferencing software from Northern Telecom to talk to and view an art director at Time Magazine. Then, using a digital camera back on a Nikon camera and Adobe Photoshop, a photographer and the art director created a fake cover for Time showing Sculley with the caption, "Read My Chips." It ran a bit slowly, and the images of Sculley and the art director in New York were in black and white and jumpy, but it worked. Impressive.

I think I’ve figured out why QuickTime will be a success. QuickTime is like HyperCard, except Apple has made sure that there will be a commercial market around QuickTime. Despite the gigabytes of stacks created in HyperCard, it has been a smashing commercial failure because Apple provided too much. Any moderately bright monkey could create something in HyperCard using the built-in tools – few people needed the more powerful tools marketed commercially, and even fewer people did a good enough job to market their stacks commercially. Because there’s no market around HyperCard, it’s languishing at Claris and everyone is sitting around trying to figure out what to do with it. Had Apple provided the guts of HyperCard as an extension to the system software so anyone could run a stack, but left the market for development tools open, commercial HyperCard utilities and packages of externals would have sprung up, some on the high end, some on the low end. It’s not quite parallel, but it’s close.

That is what’s going to happen with QuickTime. Apple has said, "Look people, here’s this great stuff that your Mac can do, and if you want to make your own or modify what you’re getting, go buy a package from a third party." Some of the programs for creating and editing movies will be high-end and expensive, and others will be more on the level of Kid Pix Companion, which among other things, allows kids to put together slide shows using QuickTime movies. Lots of movies and animations will be uploaded to the electronic services, and hard drives that groaned under the weight of HyperCard stacks may need replacing to handle the even bulkier movies.

Sure, you can’t do much with QuickTime right now. That’s because developers are still figuring out what might be fun to do with it. Adding basic support for playing movies is easy, and that’s what most applications have done. But the impressive stuff, like Adobe Premiere, is starting to appear, and the little utilities are just poking their heads out the door. The first I’ve heard of is VideoBeep, which can play a QuickTime movie at a number of system events, like Startup, Shutdown, Disk Insert, Disk Eject, and so on. The point is that because Apple has merely provided the platform and stepped out of the way, developers can step in to produce useful software. Competition will result and before you know it, there will be far more uses for QuickTime than appear possible now. Look at the compression market. Aladdin was sitting pretty with StuffIt Deluxe, and then along came Salient with DiskDoubler, redefining the market in the process. Now Aladdin, Salient, and Alysis are barely on speaking terms due to fierce competition, but their products are improving and evolving far more rapidly than any others that I can think of at the moment. That will happen with QuickTime utilities too, though probably not at the same rate for a while.

Another reason QuickTime will succeed is that camcorders and digital cameras are getting cheaper and better all the time with the consumer market pushing them. A friend from Ithaca came to visit and brought four 1.4 MB floppies filled with 75 pictures of our friends and the gorgeous autumn leaves back there. It was a slightly more difficult to view the pictures than a stack of glossies, but it was a lot cheaper and he could easily throw out the lousy ones to make room for more. I’m already coveting a camcorder for just this sort of thing.

Finally, Apple is pushing QuickTime as an open standard. Learning from IBM’s accidental move with the original PC, Apple has realized that open standards usually win out and they’re even better if you control the standard and have a head start in implementing it. To that end, one of Sculley’s assistants at the keynote showed some QuickTime movies on a Mac, copied the files to a DOS floppy (I don’t know if he was using Apple’s soon-to-be-released DOS Exchange program or not), copied them onto a Windows system, and ran them using what he termed "extremely prototype" software. Still, it worked, and those QuickTime movies ran just fine under Windows, and once people use QuickTime on Macs and PC clones, the amount that you will be able to do will increase even more rapidly.

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