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April 25th, 2013

No Time For QuickTime

It definitely wasn’t worth the effort and I wouldn’t do it again. Now I’ve got this crapware from Apple on my work computer, which I guess I could remove.

All I wanted to do was click and listen to about an eight second sound bite of a recently discovered recording of Alexander Graham Bell saying, “Hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.” I’d found an article on the discovery and recovery of the 1875 recording on the BBC’s website, which offered a link to listen on the Smithsonian’s site, which I clicked.

I thought it was going to be easy. Just click, listen, and get back to work. Wrong. My Chrome browser told me I needed to install the QuickTime plugin if I wanted to hear Mr. Bell.

I couldn’t believe it. The Smithsonian is digitizing precious historical video and audio documents using proprietary codecs like Apple’s QuickTime?

Actually, I could believe it. I just didn’t want to. This is par for the course. I should probably be thankful they’re not using Flash.

I wonder who at the Smithsonian made the decision to use a closed source system like QuickTime instead of an open standard? I’m betting this is a case of vendor lock-in that goes back to the days when FOSS didn’t exist and there were no good free and open ways to store audio and video. QuickTime was probably a good choice back then, especially since, in those days, Apple computers were the standard in the educational world.

But today there are plenty of open alternatives. So why are they continuing to save stuff in a closed format? More important, why do they continue to serve-up audio and video to the public in a closed format?

If the Smithsonian was a private company I would be a little annoyed at this, but that would be all. A private company is free to do what they want, just as I am free to go elsewhere. But public agencies should not require citizens to use some company’s proprietary software when there are open alternatives. The Smithsonian here is being no different than government agencies that require Microsoft Office formats to be used for all electronic correspondence.

[yop_poll id=”9″]

One day Apple will be gone. It’s inconceivable that a company will last forever. At that time, the folks at the Smithsonian will face the gigantic task of converting all of their audio and video to some new codec. Let’s hope that at that time they pick something free and open, not only so they won’t ever have re-archive again, but so that users will never have to install software in order to hear an eight second sound bite.

Today, for some reason, I really wanted to hear Alexander Graham Bell’s voice, so I downloaded and installed QuickTime. Of course, if I was at home on Linux I could use MPlayer, but that wasn’t an option on the Windows box I was using–as Apple is on the IT departments short “approved” list and MPlayer isn’t.

The whole process probably took about five minutes. I clicked through the EULA without reading it. Apple then explained that what I had installed was basically crippleware, but for a fee I could upgrade to the more capable Pro version, which I declined. I had to restart Chrome for the plugin to work.

The recording was so scratchy that I couldn’t make out the words “hear my voice,” but “Alexander Graham Bell” was crystal clear–or as clear as could be expected from a mechanical analog etching into cardboard and wax from the 19th century. Dynagroove it wasn’t.

I listened twice. After the second time I felt a bit like Peggy Lee. “Is that all there is?” I wondered.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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