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Why QuickTime is the US Dollar of Digital Video

As the standard is devalued, the world undertakes a slow-motion search for an alternative. What can be done for QuickTime?

By Mark Christiansen | July 12, 2008


How bad are things for the US Dollar these days? So bad that, as reported by the BBC and mentioned recently on This Week in Tech, Gisele Bundchen no longer accepts modeling pay in dollars, nor apparently do many high-end boutiques in the capital of U.S. commerce, New York City. European travel is effectively twice as expensive as it was just a few years ago simply because of the exchange rate. So it may come as a surprise how familiar the situation of the world economy in regards to the dollar is if you're a video professional using QuickTime.

I'm not actually joking.

Even casual followers of economic data have noticed the sorry state of the dollar when compared with its nearest competitor currency, the Euro, as well as with the value of pretty much anything else, including gold. If you didn't do any economics along with your video training you may not know that the dollar was long pegged to the value of gold, until the first day of 1975, when under Nixon it was allowed to float freely on international currency markets. It was a roll of the dice that the dollar was itself more of a standard than the metal that drove the conquest of the world, and the expansion of California.

At that point in the mid-seventies, the dollar standard was already dominant, as the U.S. hosted the world's largest free-market economy. Since then it has only become more so. Those who wonder why the world does not simply switch to the Euro in light of the failing dollar fail to realize that, although this strategy might work for the girlfriend of a Superbowl loser, the main thing preventing a run on the dollar right now is that the world's major creditors - in particular China and Japan - hold dollars. To ignite a sell-off would be to incinerate their own treasuries. There is no fast way out of the dollar standard, only a slow motion move to better solutions.

And so it is with QuickTime. Yes, we love Apple (or I will again as soon as can get an iPhone without risking waiting 4 hours only to be turned away empty-handed, as happened to a friend of mine this weekend). And QuickTime has in many ways served us well. It is backed by the only company who dominant in both hardware and software for creative professionals, so in many ways we are betting with the house, just as the U.S. Treasury of the late 20th century was, in many ways, the hub of the free market economy itself. However, we now find ourselves in some ways stuck with a standard whose value for us seems have declined markedly.

Back in the 90's I remember lobbying hard, along with many others, for QuickTime to be universally supported on systems from Avid and Discreet and smaller more specialized companies that shunned the format in favor of proprietary formats such as OMF (the "Open Media Framework") that couldn't be played back without buying something, and image sequences, which couldn't be played back in real-time without a specialized hardware/software combination. We were also rooting for QuickTime as the underdog against the other web video formats of the day, the much dreaded Windows Media Real.

This echos how the black market also helped the dollar, as gold was impractical for illicit purchases in far-flung corners of the world. The almighty greenback was more portable and universally accepted; you could hail a cab anywhere in the world without having converted currency and the driver would be sure to accept dollars as compensation.

And now? QuickTime remains the easy and ubiquitous option; there are better formats (DIVX, Flash Video) for delivery in specific cases, but you can't use them in both production and delivery. That makes it all the more regrettable that Apple has continued to develop it simultaneously as the foundation of Final Cut Studio and as the digital-rights-managed consumer delivery medium of choice. A short list of complaints resulting from the prosumer character of QuickTime, which I hope readers will lengthen in the comments, includes:

  • The gamma debacle, in which Apple secretly includes a tag which changes the gamma according to which platform, system or application is playing back the file. The same QuickTime movie will look different depending on which application plays it including Final Cut Pro, Quicktime Player, and Shake - all Apple applications!
    (NOTE: Fuel FX now offers a gamma stripper for QuickTime on Windows & Mac - check under the Software link)

  • The quality debacle, in which movies do not display at highest quality in QuickTime Player until you specifically enable a checkbox obscured under a sub-tab in the Properties dialog - none of which most users know exists (Window > Show Movie Properties > select Video Track > Visual Settings - the High Quality checkbox is near the bottom).

  • The QuickTime 7.4 debacle, in which the DRM so hobbled the format that After Effects renders failed. Adobe took heat for this until Apple quietly slipped in a 7.4.1 release. You can call this a unique situation, except that it reflects a trend on the part of Apple to think first about consumer delivery and only secondarily about professionals. I can hardly blame them - compare the numbers and you see who wins - but maybe we need two formats, one for consumers and one for pros.

All of which brings us to the seeming conclusion that, like so many of the world's banks with the dollar, we video would be fleeing QuickTime if only there were a viable alternative and we didn't already have so many assets tied up with it. My own solution of late has been to use image sequences while working and QuickTime only for delivery and review, just like the bigger effects houses do.

What are your horror stories and/or solutions?
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Scott Simmons: | July, 13, 2008

All this is very true. Consumer Quicktime is now at odds with Professional Quicktime. I wrote something similar at Studio Daily a while back and a number of other bloggers and writers have expressed similar opinions. I think the problem is that Apple has rarely done what is right for a collective industry and only done what they see as right for their strategy. Steve Jobs is a visionary so that may or may not be the best route to take but there are always those who will NOT be served by what they choose to do. In a consumer world the professionals usually know best. In a professional world then the professionals definitely best. Now if only Apple would listen to the professionals who make a living with Quicktime.

Guy Forget: | July, 13, 2008

What about MXF ?
Isn’t it supposed to be open and codec-agnostic ?

Sony and Panasonic seem to have adopted it, so why not make it a cross-platform open standard ?

Rich Young: | July, 13, 2008

QuickTimeGammaStripper is available from links here:

Chris Meyer: | July, 14, 2008

I find it quite odd that QuickTime does not support ICC color profiles. After all, Apple led the charge with ColorSync; supporting ICC color profiles - and making them easy to see/swap in QuickTime Pro - would seem an obvious choice. Replacing this with the obscure, often-damaging gamma tag has caused many problems.

On a smaller level, I am also disappointed that the interactive potential of the QT container has not been more fully exploited.

The “high quality” tag is left over from the days when a stock Mac could not play back full-quality DV without hitching. That day is long gone. Alas, we are stuck with the bad behaviour of this tag defaulting to Off. Although this is not unsual - many programs choose default settings not because they are what users should be using, but because they make the program appear snappier (low anti-aliasing settings in many 3D apps being but one example).

stephen v2: | July, 14, 2008

Great post - QuickTime is broken across all platforms and despite owning QuickTime Pro on both platforms, I only use it when absolutely necessary.

The big question - if Apple is not going to fix it (and it does not appear they will), unlike the Euro, there is no real replacement at this point.

Rich Young: | July, 15, 2008

Apple is working on QuickTime X for Snow Leopard next year, which is based on some different version from the iPhone. That could mean even more bumps in the road as the guts of the OS are refined.

KWatkins: | July, 18, 2008

What a great post. This finally proves what I’ve long suspected but could never prove - gamma is not consistent across platforms. From AE to FCP to Color to QTPro. Man, that has been driving me mad. (I thought it had something to do with YUV - RGB.)

Apple is in a bind with QT. They are trying to fend off a bigger and better delivery format for the web - FLASH, with an app designed more for the desktop. All while trying not to alienate current users. There is too much legacy within QT. Its like VISTA - has to be all things to all people and we know how that is working out…

Mike Curtis: | July, 18, 2008

....and even from within the same app sometimes you can get different results. Even Apple apps. I recall a call with a frustrated compatriot in NYC who was getting different results exporting DVCPRO HD to uncompressed QuickTimes in FCP- one gamma/look from exporting from the timeline, another from Export Via Compressor, another from Batch Export.

QuickTime seems to be a like a whole LOT of pipes interconnecting in a given application (like Final Cut Pro or Compressor), and you can never quite be sure what you’re going to get.

I spent a great deal of time a few years ago trying to find a high quality 10 bit 4:4:4 RGB pipeline in Final Cut Pro, to learn that it basically couldn’t do it. You can spend a lot of time and money to get something close, but then other factors interfere as well.

And don’t even get me started on supposedly 10 bit outputs that only contain 8 bits of information in a 10 bit shell…

On a similar note, spent some time trying all the different tools and ways to convert Red footage the other day - I came up with 9 potentially valid ways to convert footage for color grading…and that is before I got into scaling algorithms, which Red provided tool to reduce chroma noise, how much OLPF compensation to use, etc. etc. etc.

Trying to pay very close attention on how to get high quality results out of software that gives no clues when it goes off the rails is HARD.


billS: | July, 20, 2008

good article!
the gamma problem has given me fits for a while…

just a note—the gamma stripper is only for windows…

what about us mac folk? 
any workaround / hack to make FCP / compressor/ DVD studioPro   GAMMA look and render all the same?

anybody have any war wounds with the 8 CORE machines lack of using all cores?

Chief Technician: | July, 20, 2008

I was the victim of a nasty change in QuickTime v7.3.1 earlier this year.  We use Digidesign’s Pro Tools|HD, and we often import DV encoded QuickTime movie files into Pro Tools for mix-to-picture work.  At the time, we were using Pro Tools v7.3.1.  Either the person using the station in question or an assistant thought it would be a good idea (it wasn’t) to update QuickTime at this station to v7.3.1.

Apple changed *SOMETHING* in QuickTime v7.3.1 such that importing the audio tracks of a DV encoded QuickTime movie file into Pro Tools resulted in unusable audio.  The only options were to do a clean install of OS X, or upgrade to Pro Tools v7.4.  I was scared to update to Pro Tools v7.4 (and two months later my fear was confirmed), but it was the quicker fix in terms of time and labor cost.

Why Apple would go in and change the APIs that make importing audio tracks from DV encoded movies is beyond me.  But they did it, and it put me in a bad spot.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this debacle comes back to haunt me later this year.

As for all the other comments, I’ve got one thing to say that I have been saying for years.  Perhaps now other people will start agreeing with me.

Apple is the new Microsoft.

Andi: | July, 22, 2008

There is also problems with QT due to more applications going 64 bit. There simply is no 64 bit QT. For instance Avid DS is delivered with two DS versions on the same 64 bit Windows system, one 64 bit and a second 32 bit DS, one of the differences between the versions being that for import or export of QT you have to use the 32 bit version. Later you can close the 32 bit application and start the 64 bit DS version and continue working there.

Simon Wyndham: | July, 24, 2008

“What about MXF ?
Isn’t it supposed to be open and codec-agnostic ?
Sony and Panasonic seem to have adopted it, so why not make it a cross-platform open standard “

Doesn’t solve the problem (Sony uses a slightly different proprietary version of MXF, as always)

Besides everything has to be rewrapped to Quicktime mov for use in FCP for example.

Apples reliance in QT has always bugged me. I simply cannot see any reason why FCP needs everything in a .mov wrapper. Everything would be made so much simpler for cross platform compatibility if NLE applications and media players simply handled every file in their native formats.

We’ll never have a ‘standard’ for playback or for capture. But what we can hope for is cross platform compatibility. Apple need to realise that professionals in video have to deal with clients that are predominantly Windows based as well as Mac based.

This is one advantage of PC based NLE’s such as Vegas. If you want to encode it, you can, as long as the codec is on your system. With Compressor and FCP you have to jump through hoops.

glennser: | July, 26, 2008

I’ve got a new one, recently I had to batch a couple of old renders in after effects for a redelivery, all I had to do was crop them and wasn’t even paying much attention when I noticed that compression markers we’d put on the last frame using FCP (for some reason authoring houses request that for PAL dvd animations) were showing up in my composition window, I wasn’t able to disable them in after effects and had to open each one in quicktime pro, delete the compression marker and save, what a disaster!!Granted it would be nice to be able to access markers from other apps but why would you ever want them to show up in your renders?  I was using AE7 and don’t know if it’s a problem with CS3 too but it must be something apple changed as it never happened before.
On a side note I once heard that a lot of the confusion between Decklink and Apple uncompressed codecs was the result of Apple deciding they wanted to use the same codec identifying code (2Vuy I think, maybe not) that decklink had been using for years, that’s really obnoxious.  I know people claim the two are the same but last time I checked they weren’t, the same render shows up as Decklink codec in After Effects and Apple Uncompressed in Final Cut Pro, not very professional.
Anyone else?

Thomas Craul: | February, 05, 2009

“but maybe we need two formats, one for consumers and one for pros.”

we already have… QuickTime and QuickTime Pro.

Hands down to their technologies, but Apple is nothing less than an ignorant company compared to (not perfect but much dependable) Adobe customer philosophy.

I’m so tired of Apple and their lacking information content. They’re not capable to bring out one update with a clear and deep release information and their not capable to code and test their software right without screwing up something.
And then, whenever its screwed up they’ll gonna leave us in the rain for a longer period.

My biggest fear is that many “Mac” users (including the relatively small ammount of PROs) are tame as sheeps.

We, The pro Application users - should rather turn to digital carnivores and show Apple what is realy going on.
If anyone takes a little google session, you’ll find millions of reasons not to use a Pro Application from Apple to earn you daily bread without risking to die on heart siseases before you get really old.

Personally, i’d pledge for a petition to Apple.

Thomas Craul: | March, 04, 2009

dear marire penis or alexa?

no doubts about QTs abilites you have described but we’re talking here about serious problems with the architecture and the development issues of QT speaking for the professional side of daily business life. If you work as a professional on serious jobs i’m sure that QT-Pro-Player as an editing workstation is definetly not the way to go smile

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