On Apple Multimedia – An Interview with Dan Crow (part one)

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Some years ago I came by two packaged and unopened copies of a little known software sold by Apple. Called Apple Media Tool, it was a competitor to Director and Toolbook, an authoring tool cum programming environment created for designers who had no programming background but wanted to build multimedia presentations for interactive CD-ROMs.

Dan CrowTo tell the story of this software I contacted Dan Crow, who worked at Apple on a lot of key multimedia projects such as QuickTime and Hypercard, starting with Apple Multimedia Tool, of which he was put in charge.

Dan, who is now at Google, not only graciously answered to all of my questions about his work but also provided a fascinating background of what was life at Apple during the mid-Nineties and then after Steve Jobs came back and began to transform Infinite Loop. Thanks a lot, Dan!

Stories of Apple: Would you tell the Stories of Apple readers a bit about yourself, about your background and where do you come from, professionally speaking?

Dan Crow: I’m a software developer and product manager. I first got interested in computers in early 1982, when my mother purchased a Sinclair ZX81. I taught myself to program BASIC and Z80 assembly language before graduating to a series of more advanced personal computers. Eventually I became so interested in programming that I interned at IBM for a year and then went to the University of Leeds to study Computer Science. I graduated from Leeds in 1989 and decided to stay on to pursue a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, specifically working on intelligent user interfaces.

AMT boxSoA: Your first role at Apple was Lead Engineer on AMT, the Apple Media Tool. Can you shed some light on its history?

DC: AMT was originally written by a Belgian software developer called Patrick Soquet. Patrick is an exceptionally talented software engineer and a really nice guy. He was inspired by the Eiffel programming language and implemented his own version of it which he called Key. He not only created a Key compiler, but also a full development environment and a simple to use graphical UI for generating Key source code. This UI was focused on authoring multimedia presentations. Patrick offered the whole Key environment to Apple, who saw the potential of it and started selling it as the Apple Media Tool (AMT) and its accompanying Apple Media Tool Programming Environment (AMTPE).

Patrick was initially the sole developer of the software with Apple simply marketing and selling it under its brand. In the summer of 1996, Apple negotiated with Patrick to take over the full rights to AMT and AMTPE and created a small internal development team to produce future versions of the software. This is the team that I lead from late 1996 to early 1997.

SoA: How did you join the AMT team?

DC: After graduating from Leeds for a second time, I worked as Head of Software Development for a small multimedia company in the UK called Art of Memory. This was back in the days before the web took off, so we worked on CD-ROMs and kiosk systems. The company specialized in multimedia production for museums and we created pieces for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York amongst others. It was at Art of Memory that I first worked with HyperCard and the Apple Media Tool (AMT).

At Art of Memory we developed a series of extensions to AMT, and I became active on the developer mailing list. As we became more involved with software development for AMT I became increasingly interested in the tool itself. I eventually got in touch with the AMT team at Apple and wound up with a contract to write the technical documentation for an upcoming version of the tool.

As part of the contract I spent a week at Infinite Loop. It was my first visit to California (though not America) and I was impressed by Apple, by the AMT team and by San Francisco. I recall flying out of San Francisco airport, with the sun setting over the Bay, and thinking that was the place I wanted to live and work.

So, for the next few months I lobbied to become a full-time member of the AMT team. In the end I think they got tired of my constant pestering and decided that the only way to shut me up was to offer me a job. So in the Fall of 1996 I became the tech lead on AMT and moved with my wife to California.

The Apple Media Tool environment

SoA: How was the experience?

DC: We launched version 2.1 a few months after I arrived. We then began work on the next version. Unfortunately Apple was in turmoil at the time. This was the period when Gil Amelio was CEO and the company was running into deep financial problems. Apple had become very fragmented at this time and there were teams working on projects that competed with each other. We produced dozens of different Mac models which confused our customers and most of them simply weren’t that exciting. There was huge internal debate about if we should be a software or a hardware company and if we should pursue consumers, educational customers or corporation. Worst of all the Mac OS was outdated, slow and had lost its UI edge. There were a lot of unhappy people at Apple.

Our management decided to try to rationalize what Apple did. Unfortunately for me, one of the victims of this was AMT. Apple produced AMT, FileMaker (through the Claris subsiduary) and HyperCard and that was at least one similar product too many. Sadly, AMT was the product we decided to end. The problem was that although AMT had some very enthusiastic developers who were creating some very cutting edge products with it, they only numbered around 10,000. HyperCard was in use by hundreds of thousands of Mac users, so AMT was canceled and the team was reassigned to QuickTime.

SoA: And what happened of AMT after that? Was it definitely shelved?

DC: Following Apple’s decision to cancel AMT as an Apple product, there were various attempts to find a new home for the tool. A number of developers who were using it expressed an interest in seeing it become an independent product, as well as some members of the Apple AMT team. Eventually, Patrick joined forces with a number of other AMT fans and brought back the rights to AMT and AMTPE. They launched a new company, tribeworks.com, to develop and sell AMT, which they renamed iShell. In 2006 iShell was acquired from Tribeworks by a new company called tribalmedia. iShell continues to have a loyal following of developers and you can see what AMT has evolved into by visiting them at www.tribalmedia.com

(continues in part two)

The picture of Dan Crow is courtesy of Dan himself and is from the Flickr account of Danny Sullyvan. The AMT environment screenshot is from an old University of Calgary Newsletter.

Monday 05 July 2010, 8:27 am
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1 Comment »

  1. […] is the second part of Stories of Apple’ interview with Dan Crow, who was originally hired by Apple to work on AMT (Apple Media Tool) but stayed on and contributed […]

    Pingback by Stories of Apple – On Apple Multimedia – An Interview with Dan Crow (part two) — July 12, 2010 @ 8:26 am

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