Whatever happened to QuickTime?

The only time that I visited Apple’s Cupertino headquarters was to interview the QuickTime product manager about where he saw QuickTime heading, and how it was succeeding against its competition.

In those days, QuickTime was a separate download, maintained apart from Mac OS, and its Player app came in regular and paid-for Pro versions. It has also just celebrated its 24th birthday, so perhaps this is an appropriate moment to ask where it is now, after all those media-rich years.

When QuickTime was released in December 1991, using and viewing ‘multimedia’ on computers was still very crude, and left in the main to applications to deal with. As a result, you might have one app which supported a specific type of audio encoding and could access those compressed files, but another app would be unable to unless its developers built in its own support.

QuickTime provided a simple architecture to address that: a modular system of Codecs did the job of coding (compressing) and decoding (decompressing) different types of video, audio, and still images. For your Mac to be able to create or play a movie, all you needed was suitable Codec support for the audio and video which made up that movie. All apps had to do was make the right calls to Mac OS, and they instantly supported all the media types for which you had Codecs. QuickTime itself came with a long list of major Codecs which came bundled with it.

quicktimepantherIt took Microsoft another year to release Video for Windows, its competitor, which remained confined to its own Windows operating systems, and therefore was of more limited value to those wishing to distribute content across platforms. It later morphed into ActiveMovie (1996), and then DirectShow the following year.

quicktimetigerQuickTime was brought into OS X, and eventually, with the release of OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in 2009, became QuickTime X. In the course of this, Apple rewrote most of its internals so that it had proper 64-bit support, and integrated it with Cocoa and modern OS X frameworks. Unfortunately this also dropped support for some previously widely-used formats, in particular MIDI, to the anguish of many musicians.

QuickTime X is now fully integrated into OS X as one of its technology ‘kits’, QTKit, with QuickTime Player as the last visible vestige of its former glory. In El Capitan, it only supports modern 64-bit Codecs, and uses a wider range of clients to play media – Preview for still images, and the mess that is iTunes for video and audio. Most supported media can now be previewed or played in the Finder through Quick Look.

QuickTime Codecs are now stored in the form of components (filename extension .component), and are stored in /System/Library/QuickTime for those at the heart of OS X, /Library/QuickTime for most others, and ~/Library/QuickTime for those which are specific to the individual user. These components are in fact bundles (disguised folders), each of which contains the Codec in its internal MacOS folder. Additional components available to QTKit and apps are to be found in the Components folders in each of those Library folders too.

quicktimeelcapTo browse the installed components on your Mac, open the About This Mac dialog from the Apple menu, click on the System Report… button, and select the Components item under the Software heading in the left side of the window. Each component has a description, which should inform you what it does.

If you want to play (or create) content for which you do not have a suitable Codec, Apple lists many available products here. Sadly multi-Codec freeware such as Perian and NicePlayer are no longer supported, although old versions are still available for download. Otherwise it is a matter of searching for the specific Codec which you need.

Although the future of the bundled QuickTime Player app looks decidely uncertain, and the name QuickTime is slowly passing into history, QTKit looks to be carrying on the long tradition of delivering rich media to OS X and its apps. It may not be long now before the only product from Apple which still bears the name of QuickTime is the Windows version, which would be rather ironic.