December 2, 1991: Apple ships its first public version of QuickTime, bringing video to Mac users running System 7.
Containing codecs for graphics, animation and video, QuickTime confirms Apple’s status as a leading multimedia tech company. The software also starts us all off on the path to playing video on our computers. This fundamental transformation of Macs into media machines eventually leads to iTunes Movies, YouTube and more.
Being able to play video footage using a computer was a big ambition in the 1980s and early 1990s. At the top of the ladder in Hollywood, pioneers like George Lucas and, later, Steve Jobs (who bought Pixar from Lucas) saw that film was headed in a digital direction — whether for special effects, computer animation, footage preservation or other reasons.
QuickTime: A long-time dream of multimedia Macs
On the consumer end, Apple helped pave the way for digital video. In the 1980s, Apple engineer Steve Perlman wrote a program called QuickScan that allowed video playback on a Mac. Although it got a public demo, Apple canceled QuickScan before release. (The move came largely because the software required its own graphics chip to run.)
This work eventually transitioned into a program called QuickTime. Apple demoed QuickTime at its second Worldwide Developers Conference in May 1991, before shipping the first beta version in early July.
The first QuickTime video ever shown to audiences was Apple’s iconic “1984” ad for the Macintosh. Lead developer Bruce Leak played it at 320×240 pixels resolution.
An innovative approach to video
One of the most revolutionary things about QuickTime wasn’t simply that it let you play videos, but how it let you do so. Its name emphasized a time-based component, in which the soundtrack would continue and the footage frame rate would vary to accommodate it.
If your CPU proved too slow to handle a high frame rate, QuickTime skipped over some video frames in order to keep up with the soundtrack. On a then-current Mac IIci or IIcx system, for example, you could expect to play QuickTime movies of around 160×120 pixels at around 10 frames per second.
This caused some people to criticize QuickTime. They were apparently unaware that comparable Windows PCs at the time were still struggling — and failing — to provide a standardized audio playback (with no video!) option.
QuickTime, by comparison, juggled audio, video, text, time codes and other time-related information. And the software kept it all in sync with the (comparatively) limited hardware of 1991-era Macs.
Apple: A video pioneer
After launching QuickTime, Apple continued to build on its multimedia capabilities. Other versions of QuickTime, which Apple eventually ported to Windows, brought new, better features.
In the early 2000s, Apple became the go-to company for encoding and hosting streaming movie trailers, which ran far better than any rival option. Apple also won an Emmy for its FireWire technology (exactly a decade after QuickTime first shipped). The high-speed FireWire interface standard let home users easily upload self-shot footage to edit on their Macs.
Today, Apple is taking a stab at Netflix-style original content with Apple TV+. Should it live up to its potential (and, right now, it’s doing pretty darn well on the quality front) it will be a worthy continuation of QuickTime’s industry-transforming legacy.
Do you remember seeing video for the first time on a Mac? Were you there to witness the early days of QuickTime? Leave your comments below.