As I’ve spent the last few columns looking at streaming technology options, some Roundtable members have let me know that they don’t think I have given Apple’s QuickTime format the respect it deserves. One individual characterized me as a writer with an attention span that “extends only as far as his own Intel-driven computer.” On that note, let me set the record straight: While I currently use a Compaq laptop as my main computer and a Dell desktop for a digital media workstation, I am a Mac enthusiast from way back. Sad was the day when I traded in my trusty PowerBook for a Windows laptop. But just as there were good reasons for my employer to move to PCs then, there are good reasons now for most organizations to consider other streaming options before QuickTime. In this week’s column, I’ll explain why you’ll want to go with other streaming platforms in most cases, but I’ll also point out when you should consider QuickTime as a Web video option.
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Why QuickTime is often not the best option
If you are contracting with a streaming vendor to host your streaming content to ensure wide availability on the Web, there’s an excellent chance that the vendor won’t even offer QuickTime as an option. Many don’t offer QuickTime because, compared to RealPlayer and Windows Media Player, relatively few users have QuickTime installed on their computers. According to a report released by Jupiter Media Metrix in April, RealPlayer had the largest share of computers—PCs and Macs—with stand-alone streaming media players used at work. According to Media Metrix, in January, 34.6 percent of at-work computers used RealPlayer, while 30.4 percent used Windows Media Player, and 6.5 percent used QuickTime. Among home users, 31.8 percent used RealPlayer, while 26.4 percent used Windows Media Player, and 8.9 percent used QuickTime. While these numbers indicate usage of the stand-alone players and not total installations, they do indicate that on the desktop and in the marketplace, QuickTime has a way to go before it catches up with RealNetworks and Microsoft.
In addition to lacking the overall market penetration of Microsoft’s and RealNetworks’ media players, QuickTime is viewed by many streaming professionals as a less-mature streaming technology than Windows Media Services or RealSystem Server. Remember that QuickTime originated as a format for storing high-quality video images in digital format, not as a platform for delivering those images over the Internet. However, Apple is making great strides in developing QuickTime as a streaming platform, and I have heard from several TechRepublic members who had positive experiences implementing QuickTime servers on their networks. Apple includes a new version of QuickTime Streaming Server as part of its robust UNIX-based Mac OS X Server and provides free, downloadable versions of its Darwin QuickTime Server that runs on Windows NT and 2000 Servers, FreeBSD 3.5, Red Hat Linux 6.2, and Solaris 7. From a pure technology standpoint, the QuickTime Server may prove a winner, and it may be worth checking out, depending on your Web media needs.
When you should consider QuickTime
If you work in an environment in which most of your Mac and PC desktops are equipped with QuickTime players, QuickTime may be the perfect streaming choice for internal streaming video efforts. Even if you don’t, it may be the best option for delivering certain types of video content over the Web, even to external audiences. For applications that demand consistent picture and sound quality, regardless of the user’s connection speed, QuickTime is often preferable to either RealSystem Server or Windows Media Services because only QuickTime provides a “Fast Start” content delivery option.
Fast Start is actually an alternative to content streaming. A true streaming video server uses Internet protocols to deliver a continuous flow of data packets that are translated by a media viewer application into sound and moving images. Streams encoded for lower-speed Internet connections deliver grainier sound and images because they are limited in the volume of data packets they can deliver as the content plays. However, when a QuickTime Server delivers Fast Start video content, it actually downloads the entire video clip to the user’s computer for playback by the media player. Because the file downloads content before it plays, the picture size and quality are uniform for all users, regardless of their connection speed. The QuickTime media player simulates streaming video by beginning to play a Fast Start video file as soon as it has received enough of the clip to keep the playback point ahead of the incoming data. If the incoming data doesn’t keep up with the player’s anticipated pace, the video pauses while the download catches up.
This ability to ensure picture quality is the main reason why QuickTime is the preference of film studios posting movie previews on the Web. They don’t want consumers to see their previews in low-quality video, but they do provide trailers in multiple screen dimensions—and corresponding file sizes—to keep download times acceptable for users at all speeds. However, users with 28.8 connections can watch the same large-screen preview as DSL users—if they are willing to wait for the larger file to download at their connection speed. And while Fast Start video clips are ideal for this type of quality-demanding application, it is simply not an option for live Webcasts or video content of considerable length. Fast Start is also not a good choice if you are uncomfortable for any reason about releasing a piece of video content for download, which gives users the ability to maintain and distribute the content on their own. Only true streaming formats limit the ability of users to access video content exclusively through your server.
I hope that dispels any rumors that I indiscriminately ignore or arbitrarily despise QuickTime. As a film buff, I give my QuickTime player quite a workout keeping up with Hollywood’s latest deliveries. However, when comparing options for delivering your company’s video content on the Web, you need to keep your eyes on more mundane issues like dependability, availability, and cost.
TechRepublic cofounder and Senior Contributing Editor Jeff Yocom is on a mission to help IT executives and managers leverage new media in all its forms: streaming audio, digital video, wireless—you name it. Yocom searches the virtual and real worlds for new media developments and engages TechRepublic members in illuminating discussions to keep you up to date on real-world applications of new media technologies.