Analysis: Microsoft should lighten up on QuickTime

Microsoft doth protest too much in response to Apple claims that it might be about to license Apple's QuickTime.

Last week Computerworld carried a story that had appeared on the front page of InfoWorld (US), suggesting that Microsoft might be about to license Apple's QuickTime media platform. The response from Redmond, if not quite angry, was certainly firm.

Microsoft issued a denial, with a copy of a letter sent to 700 developers signed up to its ActiveMovie platform attached. Claims that Microsoft and Apple were negotiating to license QuickTime were, said the letter, absolutely false ... Microsoft is committed to ActiveMovie, and for good reason. The architecture is vastly better than that of any other digital video scheme.

But perhaps Microsoft doth protest too much. Digital video has been a black spot for Windows. Video for Windows simply doesn't work too well; Surround-Video, Microsoft's answer to QuickTime VR, was the most risible sort of vapourware; and the Apple ftp sites downloads of QuickTime for Windows now exceed those for the Mac version.

The Canyon Software episode, wherein a third-party contractor to Microsoft appeared to cut corners by stealing code from QuickTime, was also a huge embarrassment.

Microsoft should lighten up. If it does meet its schedule in including ActiveMovie in the next beta of Internet Explorer, it will be a more than adequate riposte to Netscape's bundling of Apple's QuickTime plug-in with its own recent betas. ActiveMovie's playback performance is broad--AVI, MPEG, QuickTime and audio formats--and, if newgroup reports are an indication, better than QuickTime in some cases. It will also beat QuickTime by a month or so to software MPEG playback, an important feature for the Internet.

But this is about more than playing back video files. QuickTime 2.5 has been in beta for months and may have gone final by the time you read this. Among many enhancements is the addition of a QuickDraw 3D object track, a considerable technical feat and, if it leverages QuickTimes popularity to drag QD3D into the frame, a stroke of marketing brilliance. It also includes its own music synthesiser, an expanded range of MIDI instrument sounds and support for multiple audio and text tracks.

It is features like these which make QuickTime so popular as a media authoring platform. Indeed, QuickTime is so stable and simple that Apple's bare-bones MoviePlayer can actually be used as an editor.

Microsoft's ActiveMovie filters look like a nice idea, but an authoring platform they do not make. Indeed, Microsoft is being disingenuous comparing QuickTime to ActiveMovie when a more appropriate comparison would be with its yet-to-mature DirectX suite.

Apple says this is not a religious issue any more--but if Microsoft continues to refuse to use anything it doesn't own, then we all fall prey to a bad old creed.

(Brown is @IDG's news editor. He can be contacted at russell_brown@idg.com.)

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