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Video: the last frontier of media standardization

August 27th, 2010 by Bob Crisler

The battle over online video standards has been going on for almost twenty years now. Apple demonstrated QuickTime in late 1991, showing the famous Ridley “Bladerunner” Scott-directed ’1984′ advertisement that introduced the Macintosh in a puny little postage-stamp-sized window on a Mac screen. I remember being astounded by that little video; the very idea that a computer could play video, however unimpressive it looked or sounded, was nothing less than a breakthrough in 1991. So I played that video and several others — “Sagittal Head” and “Saturn 5 launch” over and over — and was dazzled.

A year or so later, Microsoft Windows got similar technology; so similar, in fact, that it turned out that a lot of it was cut-and-pasted QuickTime code. The resulting litigation was not settled until 1997, when Bill Gates famously appeared above a beleaguered Apple conference, as Orwellian in appearance as the screen-bound antagonist from the ’1984′ ad, and announced MS’s continuing commitment to producing the Mac version of MS Office, as well as a $150M investment in Apple, overshadowing as symbol (a public vote of confidence in the company) the substance in the settlement of the first major skirmish on digital video patents.

What isn’t well-known to this day is that hidden at the center of the public rapprochement between Apple and Microsoft was a thorny issue that persists: who will control the digital formats on which video content is delivered? Who owns the video format?

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