QuickTime promises movies for all, before long

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 07/91 item 02 - scanned

When I first saw the Mac, I became instantly and deeply infatuated with it. It was so cute, and so clever. The MacPaint program was the most exciting thing I had ever used on a computer up to that time. What came to be called the WIMPS environment was clearly the future for computing. Unfortunately, the 128K machine so badly needed memory and a hard disk that I immediately wrote it off as a serious computer. My view was confirmed when I asked an enthusiastic Mac user what the machine was good for. "Writing memos", was the reply. Yes, I thought, that's just about it. My opinion was rapidly turning into prejudice.

The user I mentioned actually went on to create MacUser both here and in the US. What I should have realised is that this man, who had never used a computer for anything sensible until WIMPS came along on the Lisa, had a machine which helped him achieve things he couldn't do before. And if it worked for him, it was going to work for millions of other people who weren't really interested in computers. Apple itself didn't stand still, it gradually added the facilities that users craved.

The Mac, which had looked so underpowered at its launch, became an incredible machine. And it did this because of the farsightedness of its creators. They included things like digital sound, networking and QuickDraw right from the outset. These enabled third-parties to build a huge variety of add-on hardware devices and sophisticated software.

Now, with Apple's announcement of QuickTime, applications such as videomail are just around the corner. QuickTime is not just about video. It underpins other dynamic media, such as sound and animation. But, sticking with the video stuff, try to compare a written description of juggling and a film of someone actually doing it. Even with illustrations or photographs, it is impossible to convey the sense of rhythm. A video does it in seconds. A video embedded in a textual document is even better. Soon, we will have the ability to embed little video sequences in our word processor files. The question is, would we want to?

By sticking QuickTime into every Mac with a 68020 or higher processor, Apple is paving the way for a world in which dynamic documents are commonplace. But just as radio and then television broke the mould for published information, so QuickTime could break the mould for personal communication. Right now, we lack the disk space and the video camera to make video an everyday activity on our Macs but, if history is anything to go by, cameras will cost next to nothing and we'll all be using gigabyte disk drives in next to no time.

Assuming Aunt Lil has got a Mac, you could send her a letter on disk which, instead of saying, "You should see the state of our son's bedroom", says, "Look at the state of his bedroom". Aunt Lil could click on the icon to see a small video of the room itself. As the telephone system improves, it will be possible to chuck high volumes of digital data across the wires. I bet that, in time, magazines like MacUser will have to be published in digital form. You simply won't be interested in reading long textual descriptions of how to replace your ROMs. You'd learn far better by seeing the job being done.

We're not there yet. Fifteen seconds of full screen video takes about 425M before it's compressed. Stick it in a 16th of the screen and the volume of data immediately reduces to 26. 5M. This is still a touch on the large side. Apply a compression algorithm to each frame and you might knock this down to 2. 5M, or even less. Compress it in a way which only records the differences between successive screens and you might knock it down to 125K. Suddenly, on-screen videos look like a real possibility.

What I like about Apple's approach to QuickTime is the way it prevents software from becoming obsolete too quickly. Applications talk to a component manager which knows what sort of devices are attached to the computer. The application needs to know nothing about the hardware. The translation between the application's needs and the hardware device is done by a component. Similarly, the image compression manager hides the intricacies of the different types of compression from an application.

Apple is also sharing its views on the human interface and publishing major new controls for video and pictures. There's more, but the important thing is that Apple, with QuickTime and related announcements, is expected to create a platform, a set of tools, some standards and a consistency which will encourage third-parties and users to turn to dynamic media with the same enthusiasm they took to the draw and paint applications when the Mac first appeared.