QuickTime 5 On the Way

Apple broke form today by announcing a new -- and still incomplete -- version of QuickTime at the second annual QuickTime Live conference in Beverly Hills. Phil Schiller, Apple's Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, got up in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel and, after a rundown of the success of QuickTime 4, introduced QuickTime 5 to the crowd of developers and announced the immediate availability of the preview release for the Mac.

QuickTime 5 -- due out by the end of the year, according to one QT alpha tester -- promises to deliver a ton of new features, starting with an overhaul of the user interface. Developers will now have the ability to customize the interface with skins created from Photoshop files, and Apple has replaced the oft-maligned Volume Wheel in QT 4 with a more user-friendly slider in QT 5. Also gone is the drop-down Channel Drawer in favor of a replacement window accessed via the TV button on the right side of the QuickTime Player.

A new startup feature called Hot Pick Movie will alert users to new QuickTime content on the Apple site and the Web. During the demo, Hot Pick Movie was used to access Madonna's Web site for her new album "Music," but a crash prevented Apple from showing off album tracks exclusively in QuickTime format. (Schiller had warned the crowd that QT 5 is still a work in progress and to be patient.)

Codec support is also improved in QT 5. The Sorenson Video 3 codec promises to deliver higher-quality content; this was demonstrated with a crisp movie trailer from the upcoming Disney-Pixar animated feature Monsters, Inc. MPEG-1 streaming support is already built-in to QT 5, and Apple is currently working on MPEG-2 support. QuickTime 5 can also now play ShoutCast streams, which are easily accessible via text links that will launch the QT Player. Support for Cubic VR -- in which you can pan all the way up and down -- is built-in as well.

To go with this, Apple is also working on version 3 of the QuickTime Streaming Server.

But what about new third-party technologies? Apple has tried to help out with a new feature called Component Downloader, which alerts you when your system is missing a plug-in needed to play a particular clip, and lets you download and immediately play the file. Some components to look for are from Pulse (3-D within QuickTime), Be Here (VR using video footage), DDD (2-D video post-processed to be 3-D), Sealed Media (digital rights management on top of QuickTime), and iPIX (VR content in QuickTime).

Those who watch lots of streaming media via the Web will appreciate Apple's efforts to prevent streaming skips, those hiccups of the digital realm that ruin continuity when information packets are dropped and lost. During a demonstration, Schiller literally pulled the plug (Ethernet, that is) on the Backstreet Boys -- something many people wish they could do permanently -- and the video continued to play flawlessly for the several seconds it was unplugged.

Aspiring videographers also had reason to cheer, as Apple added an improved DV codec for viewing within iMovie. And on the high-end, Apple demonstrated real-time video editing with Final Cut Pro (demoed with an early alpha version of Final Cut 2), which is built upon QuickTime. Transitions and text movements were rendered and displayed in real time without (presumably) additional hardware acceleration.

After showing Jeff Lew's animated video of beans involved in a Matrix-inspired fight scene, Schiller ran down the success of QT 4 over its year-and-a-half life. (QuickTime itself will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year.) According to Apple numbers, between direct downloads, systems shipped with QT 4, distribution with third-party applications, and marketing distributed through cereal boxes (such as Frosted Cheerios) and enhanced CDs (such as Britney Spears's debut), there are more than 100 million copies of QT 4 out in the market.

This, Schiller said, should allay any fears people have of creating content exclusively for QuickTime. George Lucas, he pointed out, released the trailers for Star Wars, Episode 1 only in QuickTime, and it was one of the most successful events in Web history -- and Lucas is currently using QuickTime for Episode 2.

According to Schiller, QT 5 will be rolled out incrementally over the next year, with updates and enhancements coming as they are developed. But the brave can hit the Apple site today and try out the future of Apple's multimedia technology.

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