Tuesday, October 23

3 major things that annoy me about Apple Quicktime on the web

It has became abundantly clear that Apple Quicktime has some major failings for video playback on the web. There are many issues but right now I just want to focus on three extremely obvious things Apple is doing wrong which is pushing video makers, video watchers and video hosting sites away from quicktime.

1) lack of fullscreen playback in web browsers

2) lack of support for linux

3) conflicting keyboard shortcuts make playing quicktime videos in Firefox and safari painful.

Quicktime has no fullscreen playback in the browser

I could name off the top of my head over two dozen video hosting websites from Blip.tv to Youtube to Vimeo.com that have fullscreen playback as a stock feature of their video players. Nearly every single video hosting company today uses Flash as their default playback mechanism and nearly every one has a button right in the default player that allows for the immediate playback of their videos in full screen.

Counterpoint this to Apple Quicktime. Apple just recently stopped requiring users to pay $30 to buy a Quicktime Pro license to be able to play videos in fullscreen mode among other things. Having to pay to play videos fullscreen has always been a thorn in the side of quicktime authors and their fans and thank you apple for finally allowing fans to view videos in any manner they choose... but... Apple has not included in either the menu or as button in the web browser player a fullscreen playback option.

In an age where everyone and their mother has fullscreen playback as a default feature of their video Apple has fallen way behind.

No quicktime support for linux

I've been dabbling in linux for years. For the last year or so I've been using the very nice linux distribution Ubuntu on my primary desktop computer. My one major failing with the Ubuntu platform is there's no browser plugin for playing back all the quicktime formats in the browser.

Quicktime is available for Windows so why hasn't Apple released a version of Quicktime for linux or at least worked with open source developers to create a plugin that will play back Quicktime videos in web browsers on linux. Clearly linux and particularly Ubuntu are a large part of the future of desktop computing.

Macromedia Flash does have an available plugins for linux, which is yet another reason why it's so popular with video sharing sites. So why not apple?

Apple Quicktime has conflicting keyboard shortcuts in Firefox and Safari

I recently upgraded to Firefox (a very nice release) that makes the browser much more "mac-like" in both appearance and usability. There is however one thing that they carried over from Safari that's just plain wrong.

Firefox now uses the key commands "command-option-left arrow / right arrow" to switch between tabs. They copied this shortcut combination from Safari.

The problem is in their infinite wisdom the Safari team had used the same key commands to switch tabs as to play quicktime movies forward and in reverse. Therefore if you have have any Quicktime video in a web page and you flip through your tabs left or right it will automatically start the video playing in forward or reverse.

Add more tabs with more videos and what you have is a major mess with multiple videos playing, your speakers squawking gibberish, and very quickly these videos start stuttering and skipping as your hard drive and your processor get over taxed and up comes the "multi-color spinning pizza of death" (or "the spinning beach ball of death" as some prefer to call it) mouse cursor as your system becomes somewhat unresponsive making it increasingly hard for you to undo what you've just started in .5 seconds by skipping between a few tabs using command-option-left / right.

That my friends is piss poor experience and usability do to one of the most obvious errors in usability. First do know harm. Or better the number one rule of implementing quick keys: First make sure no other commands use the same key combination.

We're talking pretty basic and obvious stuff here.

I find it both funny and extremely bad that Apple, who's focus on usability is legendary, has completely missed this point with perhaps the most used application on the mac OS, Safari. I find it even more humorous that Firefox has replicated the issue by bringing the same keyboard shortcuts conflict to the Firefox browser. No doubt many people are running into this usability bug on a daily basis in some shape or form.

The only workaround I know at present is to use control-tab and control-shift-tab in firefox to switch tabs. This works on mac, not sure about windows or linux. No idea on a work around in safari. You also cannot change these keyboard shortcuts in safari, firefox or quicktime with the Mac OS system wide "Keyboard Shortcuts" control panel because none of them can be selected via the menu so they're not scriptable. I've also checked the "about:config" settings in Firefox, and done some initial digging around in the system and library folders on the Mac OS. Still there appears to be no way to change these settings. If you know of any please leave a comment. :(

In summary

In summary it has become increasingly clear that Apple Quicktime supported formats such as MP4 have huge advantages when it comes to video syndication and distribution. They scale well to high definition, they're downloadable and portable unlike many Flash videos and they're playable on a wide range of devices from iPod's to Tivo to the Zune and Sony PSP. However, when it comes to web based playback of video Flash is kicking Apple and everyone else's butt (including Windows Media and Real Media).

Flash has become so popular for web based playback because it has such highly customizable playback interface and streams so well. In many ways flash is fulfilling much of the promise of what many used to call "interactive television" or "interactive media".

Instead of being able to click on the skirt of model as she walks down the runway to get more info on the item or purchase it... Instead of "choose your own adventure" in video interactivity has been primarily obsessed with a few key features such as the ability to share a video via a wide range of options and the ability to click through and view a whole host of alternative videos, content, links and meta information that goes with the video (and don't forget commenting). While these forms of interactivity are nothing like the slick ideas we were so focused on in the past they are in many ways far more powerful, robust, interactive and meaningful then anything we'd previously imagine. As I'm fond of saying: The future is nothing like we thought it would be and yet so much better.

Where as purchasing a skirt worn by a model on a runway is one of those silly ideas of the past. The present reality of interactivity is thousands of people seeing a video on a website like youtube, sharing the url with their 14 million friends via IM email and other means, favoriting it, downloading it, remixing it, posting it to their own blogs and thereby potentially effecting great change in the "hearts and minds" of a nation. The later example may not be as slick and shiny an idea of interactivity as the first but in is in it's simplicity of technology and the sophistication and ubiquitous social nature far far more power.

As the market evolves instead of these online viewing and offline viewing paradigms converging they seem to be at least for the moment diverging. While the the iTunes Podcasting Directory and podcasting with it seems to go one direction web-services like youtube seem to be going another. Both are equally as important though.

Meanwhile the core user group, video bloggers / video podcasters and the web-services that best represent their interests like Vimeo.com and Blip.tv are increasingly offering MediaRSS feeds that contain many different enclosure formats for playback in various situations including Flash for playback on the web, low res Quicktime for playback on the iPod and various hand held devices, and the latest greatest buzz high definition MP4 or h264 encoded videos for playback on HD television and/ or with video aggregators like Miro.

The point is video will get more ubiquitous. Platforms will become more varied. They will become simultaneously higher definition and lower resolution. They will also simultaneously become longer in form and shorter. More personal and more aimed at entertaining or informing a general audience. Simultaneously more interactive and more passive.

The cell phone and ubiquitously connected wifi handhelds like the iPhone are one of the next hot platforms. And more and more videoblogs are also finding their way onto high definition TV screens in the living room via media centers and set top boxes like the Tivo and AppleTV. And of course with great new linux distro's like Ubuntu 7.10, aka. Gutsy Gibbon, increasingly a larger share of the general public is going to be using operating systems other than Apple and Microsoft. Let's not forget all the proprietary operating systems in handheld devices and set top boxes either. While web playback is the key the video space is increasingly becoming about far more than just the two primary operating systems Apple and Microsoft.

This is not be a winner take all game. In fact there's room for many different codecs and many different formats, sizes and resolutions. The web browser as in so many markets is the key platform. However as this market evolves whomever pays the most attention to and puts the most resources into bringing video these evolving markets like linux, cell phones and set top boxes is going to obviously take a key position in this market.

Right now Flash has very quickly (really since the advent of youtube only a couple years ago) taken the upper hand with web based playback. Apple has a very strong position with portable devices with the iPod and AppleTV (bringing media to the pocket and the living room). Apple would also seem to have a lead in the cellular market with the iPhone, but Flash has very bright prospects there as well with it's ability to be customized for streaming and playback over 3g and wifi. We'll see how it all plays out.

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