QuickTime X walks before it runs

QuickTime X may not have as many features as its predecessor, but Apple has taken the wise decision to focus on getting the basics right first.

For Mac users who use QuickTime Player and who have upgraded to Snow Leopard, Apple’s decision to retain QuickTime 7 – either as an optional install or installed in the Utilities folder, depending on how you upgrade – is a blessing.

QuickTime X Player’s interface may be slick and in-keeping with the likes of iLife, but there are so many missing features that for many serious users it’s unusable. It almost feels like QuickTime Lite, so bereft is it of many of QuickTime’s 7’s most useful features. Gone is the ability to view and edit individual tracks along with the checkboxes for single field, de-interlace and high-quality. Gone also are QuickTime 7’s masking features and the ability to inspect resources. QuickTime X also supports far fewer video formats, in particular older formats, than QuickTime 7. In short, QuickTime X is significantly less powerful as an application for editing and encoding video, rather than just viewing it, than its predecessors. And it’s not just the player, everything your Mac does with video is driven by QuickTime. So, for example, if QuickTime X doesn’t support an older format, neither will iMovie or Final Cut Pro.

While on the surface this seems to be a rather stupid move – unless you believe those who speculate that it’s a deliberate decision to reduce QuickTime’s usefulness as an editor in order to push us towards iMovie and Final Cut – there’s a very good reason for it. QuickTime 7 is based on legacy code going back as far as the first version of QuickTime in the early 1990s, a time when the fastest Mac you could buy had a processor with a clock cycle of 25MHz.

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MacUser: News: Analysis: QuickTime X walks before it runs

Analysis 2:30PM, Thursday 17th September 2009

By the time Apple came to develop video playing features for the iPhone, it was clear that the legacy QuickTime code wasn’t up to the job. That, together with Apple’s commitment to transition its applications to 64-bit Cocoa meant that something had to be done. So it took the engine it had built for the iPhone and used it to develop something new. That something was a complete, top-to-bottom re-write of the QuickTime framework. QuickTime X is not an upgrade to QuickTime 7, it’s a brand new framework and application.

The result is a video playback engine that exploits the capabilities of modern graphics processing units and, on a reasonably modern Mac, allows smooth-as-silk high-definition video playback. The downside, apart from the lack of editing features, is that QuickTime X plays a very limited range of codecs and there’s no support for plug-ins to add new ones. And if your Mac doesn’t have a modern graphics card, performance may even be worse than in QuickTime 7.

The good news is that QuickTime X is a beginning, not an end. Apple has taken a wise decision to focus on getting the basics right with QuickTime X and release it with limited features, rather than try and cram everything into what is essentially a 1.0 release. As with other applications, where the transition from Carbon to 64-bit Cocoa has been made without the addition of new features, Apple’s developers have been cautious but sensible.

We can only speculate about where QuickTime will go from here because Apple, in line with its stance of not commenting on unannounced products, won’t tell us. But it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that future versions of QuickTime X, probably released along with updates to Mac OS X, will put back the missing features. So, in the next version, we might see support for plug-ins, and in the one after that, the return of the Properties window in Player, and along with it the ability to cut and paste sections from individual tracks. Although it’s unlikely that all the old features will return – for example, so much video is now shot on progressive scan video cameras that support for de-interlacing might be deemed unnecessary.

In the meantime, QuickTime 7 will be updated to ensure it remains stable and secure, and will remain a part of Mac OS X for some time to come. It’s not an ideal situation, but developing a modern API for playing back audio and video, with support for Mac OS X, the iPhone, and Windows was never going to be easy. Apple has made many transitions in recent years; from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, from PowerPC to Intel, and from 32-bit Carbon to 64-bit Cocoa, and it’s learned a great deal.

Perhaps the most important lessons are not to try and do everything at once and to maintain support for the outgoing tool – whether it be Mac OS 9 with Classic, PowerPC with Rosetta, or QuickTime 7, while the replacement finds its feet. Classic has long since disappeared from the standard Mac OS X installation, Rosetta followed suit with Snow Leopard, and eventually QuickTime 7 will follow them. By then, QuickTime X will be several generations old and we’ll have forgotten what all the fuss was about when it was introduced.

Kenny Hemphill

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