Endtime for QuickTime?

The only time that I have visited Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino was to talk to the QuickTime product manager.

This was way back in the heady days of 1996, when QuickTime was five years old. I was staying in Stanford, where I was presenting a paper to a scientific meeting about genetic programming – an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technique which is modelled on the processes involved in biological evolution.

In those days, the investment banks were buying heavily into AI in the expectation that it would predict movements in stock markets, and give them the speculative advantage. It was at the tail end of a previous AI ‘revolution’ which showed us how easy it was to get the rich and greedy to part with their money, if they thought they could make a killing.

QuickTime was also on a high. It had no serious competition, was so cross-platform that Apple earned more from QuickTime on Windows than on the Mac, and it was both elegant and highly practical.

I am not really sure why QuickTime has faded so badly since. It has had its fair share of bugs and vulnerabilities, but they have been nothing in comparison with Adobe’s Flash, for example. Its design elegance separates working code in the form of CODECs (for COder-DECoder or COmpressor-DECompressor modules) from the rest of the code to support capture, editing, and playback. As a developer, building support for, say, a QuickTime player into a product was so easy it was silly.

I also really liked Apple’s early commercial stance with QuickTime: make it free for the user, and charge a small royalty for commercial developers. I’m not sure whether it ever generated much income for Apple, but for many games and rich media products it became something of a standard if you wanted to support both Macs and Windows PCs.

Its decline started with QuickTime X back in 2009, which removed features and functionality, and accelerated with Apple’s failure to support Windows 8 and later. Its replacement, AVFoundation, is specific to Apple’s family of operating systems, which is great for those developing for OS X and iOS, but hardly helpful cross-platform.

Microsoft’s closest equivalent, Windows Media Player, dropped OS X support in 2006, although Flip4Mac has continued to provide WMV Player and QuickTime codecs so that Macs can access most media intended for Windows platforms. Even Silverlight has been deprecated since 2013, and will have all support terminated in only five years time.

This does not leave a void: over QuickTime’s lifetime, we have moved from rich media shipped on optical disks to those streamed over the Internet. Apple, Microsoft, and even now Adobe have had to accept that their proprietary systems, no matter how good or cross-platform, must yield to the Rich Internet applications of HTML5/JavaScript. It is then up to the operating system to figure out how it handles those media.

Like so many great Apple products – HyperCard, Claris software, QuickDraw, to think of just a few past greats – QuickTime has been superceded. Apple should have done the decent thing and given developers and users a reasonable period to migrate. Even telling us in advance would have been far better than just leaking the news that QuickTime for Windows is no longer supported.

But we cannot be surprised.