QuickTime’s Developers Reflect on Doing Digital Video in Software

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Photo: Tekla Perry
From left, Curator Hansen Hsu, Peter Hoddie, Bruce Leak, and Doug Camplejohn at the Computer History Museum’s Press Play: The Origins of QuickTime event.

It was 1990. The state of the art in home video was the analog LaserDisc player. Video on a computer, at best, was a window that displayed a feed from that device.

A small team of young engineers at Apple set out to change that, aiming to build a tool that would allow computers to display digital videos. They ended up creating QuickTime, and changed how computers displayed video. What’s more, they gave nonprofessionals low-cost video editing tools, and put Apple into the Windows software business.

Last week, three members of the original QuickTime development team—Peter Hoddie, Bruce Leak, and Doug Camplejohn—joined Hansen Hsu, curator of the Computer History Museum’s Center for Software History, to talk about their experience on QuickTime and what it meant to them and to the industry. For all of them, even moderator Hsu, Apple was their first job after college—and a much-desired post at that. Leak, for example, spent at least half a year trying to get hired by Apple, being interviewed and rejected for three positions before he landed a spot in system software. Camplejohn had a bit of an edge, thanks to a couple of summer internships. Hoddie says he got his job through dumb luck—and his work in printer testing.

During the wide-ranging conversation, the trio recalled bits and pieces about the experience: Hoddie became obsessed with bluescreen, and hung a backdrop in his office; Leak spent many evenings using QuickTime tools to make Claymation videos. They also tried to put the advance in perspective. Said Leak, “Multimedia then was like the Internet of Things is today. It is different things to different people; there is no standard, but someday it will all work together and it will be great.”

On QuickTime’s big breakthroughs:

Said Leak, “We started to think about audio more in the way we talk about graphics. Prior to QuickTime, audio was a big part of Macintosh, but the formats were whatever the hardware supported. QuickDraw [graphics software that was part of the original Mac operating system] was able to interchange formats; no matter what hardware you had, it worked. With QuickTime, we did the same thing with sound, it could be different sample rates, different forms—you didn’t care what the audio formats were, you could converge them as you needed.”

Video, too, became easy to integrate, thanks to QuickTime. Said Camplejohn, “The breakthrough was thinking of video as just another data type, like text and graphics…. We built an architecture that would scale to different hardware, different video compression schemes, and be able to be incorporated into other applications.”

Fast video compression was part of what made QuickTime so powerful, said Hoddie. At the time, compressing video was typically done offline, and took far longer than real time. But QuickTime, Hoddie said, “was reasonably symmetric; we could just about compress in real time.” This, he recalls, was “a big deal.”

“The fact that you could record live video—maybe not at full frame rate—directly to disk, and you could record continuously, was unheard of,” Leak recalled. “You didn’t have to capture 10 seconds in Ram and then compress,” you could do a 30-minute video.”

QuickTime was also special, the developers said, because it was Apple’s first software available as a separate package, not built into the operating system.

“We were shipped with Mac OS, but it wasn’t built into it, it was a separate install,” Hoddie explained. “We pushed developers to use it for free, but they had to put the QuickTime logo on their packaging.”

This was how, Leak said, Apple made a software extension widely available.

On announcing software that didn’t exist:

Leak said QuickTime was barely a twinkle in the developers’ eyes when it was announced as a product—and that may have contributed to the fast pace of its development. “It was announced,” he said, at Apple’s “1990 Worldwide Developers’ Conference.” Leak also recalled that Don Casey, who “none of us had ever met,” made the announcement, telling the audience that “QuickTime is this new architecture we are looking for contributions from developers to get done by end of year, will have ability to control disparate devices, including fax machines.” (He admits the fax machine promise was never fulfilled.)

“After that was announced, a lot of people were looking around inside Apple, asking who’s doing that, said it sounds really good.” That, he indicated, may have helped the effort, as the team brought in researchers on loan from other groups.

Later in QuickTime’s development came another premature announcement, says Camplejohn. Then-CEO John Scully “loved to announce stuff way before it was ready.” The group had a few contractors exploring QuickTime for Windows, he recalled, when Scully announced it. “We were then on the hook to do what was Apple’s first Windows product.”

More on QuickTime for Windows:

We had realized, Leak said, that QuickTime had to work on different platforms—maybe not the creating and editing part of it, but at least the playback portion—because “there were unfortunately a large number of Windows computers out there.”

“None of us on QuickTime team were super excited,” about working on a product for Windows, said Hoddie. “It’s hard to understate how much that was seen as pure evil.”

And, said Leak, Windows opened up “a whole new set of (technical) problems.”

But, Hoddie recalled, he and another developer were “talking about this in a non-positive way, when we realized that it has our name on it. It would be called QuickTime, so we had to work with these contractors and make it great.”

On the impact of the Pencil Test animated video:

Pencil Test, a three-minute animated video made using Macintosh computers (a lot of them), premiered at Siggraph ’88. It preceded the QuickTime development effort, but influenced the team.

“We watched [Pencil Test] countless times during the QuickTime development… to understand what it was like to make animation on a Macintosh, to learn what the challenges are in order to know what we would need to have in the future so people could do this at home,” said Hoddie. It “very much influenced the work we did on QuickTime”

The Pencil test video “was a big effort out of the Advanced Tech Group,” recalled Leak. “We in system software were always behind. So I wondered how the research team could afford to have 20 people making an animated video. How could that be important?”
It certainly showed “how complicated and how hard this was,” continued Leak. “They used 10 or 20 Mac computers to render frames one at a time, running a rendering farm. They couldn’t even always render an entire frame, they had to render pieces and assemble them on a file server….[then] they had to load 100 frames at a time onto a digital video storage machine that cost $100,000 and output that to videotape.”

On the evolution of the MPEG-4 audio and video compression standard:

“We were not winning on streaming; we were late to that game when Steve [Jobs] came back [to Apple], said Hoddie. “One way Steve thought we could catch up was to make QuickTime a standard.”

He told us, Hoddie recalled, “’You are going to go make that a standard.’ We said, ‘OK, we’ll try.’ He said, ‘No, you will succeed. You will find an A-plus proposal, one that the MPEG community accepted, and you will emulate that. And do it in a week.’”

Then, Hoddie said, he recruited people from Oracle and IBM to help promote the proposed standard. “It was a long project, we almost lost, but every device out there now plays MP4 files based on the [MPEG] standardized the file format we created back in 1990 or 1991.

On QuickTime’s legacy:

“Digital video would have happened [without us],” said Hoddie. “But the character of it, that it’s not professionals creating it and everybody else consuming it—those ideas, that had an impact,” Hoddie said.

And, he pointed out, it enabled things the developers never would have predicted—like video podcasting. “The only thing that worked everywhere was MP4.

“It’s water now, it’s easy. My kids play with digital video all the time and don’t think twice about it. And that’s the way it should be.

A video of the full discussion is available on Facebook.

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IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.

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