The first I saw of this story was when I got an upgrade-nag e-mail from Flip4Mac, which makes a QuickTime component to play, import, and/or encode Windows Media on Mac OS X (your feature set depending on how much you’re willing to pay). What was so interesting was that the basic player was now free (down from $10), and being distributed on Microsoft’s site.
Initial rumors that this represented a wholesale abandonment of Windows Media Player on the Mac seemed like an overreaction until Microsoft confirmed it.
So there are a couple points worth making here.
One: Flip4Mac is pretty good
At least as good as Microsoft’s minimal-effort abandonware player, anyways. I sprung for a “studio” license in the previous version, which allows you to not only play non-DRM WM files, but also to import them into QuickTime, potentially for export into other formats. Here’s an example of a Windows Media video from CNN.com, inside a web page (and thus, in the QuickTime plug-in):
Since I have QuickTime Pro (yeah, I paid for that too), I saved the file off to my hard drive and opened it up in QuickTime Player. Note the codecs in the info window (sorry about the scaling - maximum 450 pixel width on O’Reilly blogs), which say “Windows Media 9 Audio Standard” and “Windows Media 9 Video Standard”:
It’s pretty straightforward to export this out of Windows Media into better-supported standard formats, like MPEG-4. Here’s the same file, following an “export to iPod”:
Since Flip4Mac is a regular QuickTime component, it’s available to other QuickTime apps too. Here’s the original Windows Media file opened up in a sample code application from my book QuickTime for Java: A Developer’s Notebook:
Then again, Flip4Mac giveth, but Flip4Mac taketh away too. Some Windows Media content that worked with the original player and plug-in don’t work with Flip4Mac, including the live stream for KFOG-FM:
There are other things that neither Microsoft’s player nor Flip4Mac can handle, though they’re presumably functional on Windows. I picked up a fansub of the 40-episode anime series The Rose of Versailles (don’t sue me - this series is never coming out in English), and unfortunately, the subbers chose to put many of the episodes in a hideous Frankenstein format: DivX/XviD video with Windows Media audio, in an AVI container. Yuck. VLC can play it, of course, but I’d like to import it into QuickTime in hopes of eventually getting it into a TV-friendly format like DVD.
Two: Thank goodness for QuickTime’s component architecture
It’s hard for people to get past the idea that QuickTime is more than a format, harder still to explain that its format is a container that can handle arbitrary contents (for example, you can have a
.mov whose contents are, say, Windows Media video and AAC audio). So it’s almost impossible to get people to understand that QuickTime is a media framework, and a crazy extensible one at that. With appropriate plug-in components, you can play all of the following in any QuickTime app:
- Windows Media - with Flip4Mac WMV, as discussed above
- Ogg - with Xiph QuickTime Components
- DivX/XviD/3ivX video - with 3ivX D4
- MP3 - you get playback for free, of course, encode with the LAME QuickTime MP3 Encoder Component (if this is the same one I have… not sure, sorry… you need to track down a “LAMEFramework” file and throw it in /Libraries/Frameworks)
There are others, including Apple’s $20 playback-only MPEG-2 component and some third-party components listed on an Apple QuickTime Components page. Anyways, my point here is that QuickTime can be your one-stop media shop on the Mac.
Three: Is there hope for real standards?
Microsoft put Windows Media 9 into the standards process, where it was codified as VC-1. Anyone can pay a license fee and implement this standard. But, of course, Microsoft has proceeded onto WM 10, supported only by its OS and blessed devices. Does Microsoft’s apparent inability to succeed with cross-platform Windows Media mean that other platforms don’t matter, or that maybe real standards are going to win out, at least for those who care about getting their content out to the most viewers, and for viewers wanting access to the most content? Apple is heavily committed to MPEG-4 — an “iPod video” is simply an MPEG-4 file with H.264 video and AAC audio — and that’s a format that is well-supported on computers and devices (hello, PSP owners!). On the
quicktime-users list, Roger Howard saw the end of Windows Media for Mac as a sign of hope:
The upside for Quicktime is this: With Microsoft out of the way as a cross-platform media solutions vendor, and Real still struggling to get anyone to care, it would seem that Apple has a prime opportunity now to establish Quicktime as *the* cross-platform media delivery system, which will be quite desirable to a lot of content providers at this point. Of course we’re still missing a set of DRM tools; if there was a better, smarter time for Apple to move on that front I can’t imagine one.
Personally, I would take out “Quicktime” and insert “MPEG-4″ above. If MPEG-4 succeeds, QuickTime will do just fine.
What do you think of the end of Windows Media on Mac?