February 3, 2001. I was still in college, living abroad in Scotland. The United States was in the first month of the George W. Bush presidency. Gladiator was poised to win the Best Picture Oscar (really, people? Gladiator?) just six weeks later. A different world.
That day also saw the release of an open-source project called the VideoLAN Client. Originally intended to be a pair of software programs, a client and a server, the goal of the project was to stream videos across a network. Madness in those days, when most people were still getting used to the novelty of the young DVD format.
Of course, the project’s changed a lot in the intervening time: the name VideoLAN Client was abbreviated into VLC many years ago; the server functionality was eventually absorbed by the client program; and while streaming video over the network is still part of what the program can do, it’s much better known for being a jack-of-all-trades media player. In fact, we even called it one of
our favorite multimedia apps three years ago, and I imagine that we wouldn’t change the assessment even now.
VLC was a godsend in the early days of downloading media from the Internet, when formats proliferated wildly. Thanks to its enormous roster of compatibility, it became the de facto program for playing almost any media file known to man. Since then, things have mostly stabilized on a few popular formats, but every once in a while I still unearth random files, like relics of a bygone era, and it’s reassuring to know that VLC is still there to pry them open.
The free 1.0 release, available for OS X (both Intel and PowerPC), Windows, many flavors of Linux and other open-source operating systems, is really all about stability—that’s what eight years of testing will do for you, after all—but it doesn’t hold back on the features, either. In addition to VLC’s usual effective media-playing, the release also supports frame-by-frame playback, finer speed control, on-the-fly recording for all medias, a host of new decoders, and even support for AirTunes.
However, one feature didn’t make the 1.0 cut: support for Mac OS X 10.4.x—Tiger users will have to stick with the last supported version, 0.9.9a, while Panther users can go no further than 0.8.6i (which may have certain security issues). You’ll also need at least QuickTime 7.
A thousand years from now, when future historians discover the shattered remains of our civilization and its arcane MP4 and WMV formats, it’s good to know that VLC—which will have probably reached 3.0 by then—will be around to read them and enable our descedants to laugh at our quaint ways.