07 May, 2012

The Future Of Quartz Composer?

When I first started using Macs, around 3-4 years ago, I poked around the installation disk, and installed a set called Developer Tools. Looking around, I found an odd program called Quartz Composer. It wasn’t clear what the program did, all you could see was an empty workspace, and you were then supposed to drag in nodes and connect them, and then produce filters and screen savers. I had no idea how to use it, there were no guides or tutorials online, so I ignored it. 

Revisiting it later and after finding some scattered tutorials, something clicked and I realised the power of QC. Here was a programming tool, a real programming tool, that required no coding. Sure, it was supposed to be for screen savers and filters, but it was obviously capable, with some imagination, of so much more. 
(It might be of interest to note that I am primarily trained in drawing and illustration, so visual programming or coding was initially totally foreign to me, making my adoption of a tool like QC all the more relevant).

Even after finding ways to extend the functionality with plugins and at the same time finding a forum to discuss and ask questions (both thanks to the work of the people at I still couldn’t help noticing that the world of QC development was very quiet. No guides, no books, no websites or youtube videos, most developers seemed to ignore the existence of QC. Apple too seemed to ignore it, barely providing a mailing list(!) as a way to discuss and seek help. When OS X Lion came out, QC still had a text file with the same release notes from the previous operating system. 

So let’s be honest: QC is a bit of a forgotten tool. It sees no love from Apple, and I fear they might pull the plug on it any moment now, and leave us users in the cold. Because the truth is, there is nothing quite like QC out there. 

Visual programming can (and should!) be fun, intuitive, and most of all require no (or minimal) coding skills. 
My fear is that in the near future QC might share the same fate of apps like iWeb (another tool I loved and depended on) and get pulled with no replacement in sight. 

QC is, as far as I am concerned, the ideal programming environment. Not just for graphics, because it could be extended to be so much more.
But I’m not sure that Apple realises what they have, or what a great learning tool QC could be with the right vision behind it. Wouldn’t connecting nodes be the ideal way to make at least small programs on something like the iPad? Wouldn’t it be a great way to teach the fundamentals of programming logic to kids? Evidently no one at Apple is thinking about this, or if they are they are being very quiet about it.

At this point in time, I cannot honestly recommend that you learn QC (at least not exclusively), because I don’t know how long it will be around for. QC is such a unique environment that nothing really matches its ease of use and intuitiveness. Most of what you learn in it will take you ages to transfer to a different programming environment, and even then it will take you 10 times longer than it ever did in QC. There seems to be no appreciation for node-based programming environments. Programming is meant to be a hardcore skill that requires you to learn and master several programming languages that require the inclusion of 3 libraries and countless lines of code just to display a coloured square in a window.

Even when using fairly simple languages like Lua or Python, getting to display anything on the screen requires you to find a code editor, some library or tool to display the code (languages don’t come with built-in ways to display graphics or sound), hope that it runs well or is updated to the latest specfication of the language and hope it is well documented. Then every time you write the code and make a change, you need to close the window and restart your app just to see any changes displayed. Every time. Imagine if you had to turn the lights of the room on and off again every time you changed a pencil drawing or a painting just to see the results. I don’t have to point out how much faster any of this would be in QC (not to mention in real-time).

I think it's a relevant criticism, as the workflow can be (apart from a huge barrier to newcomers), a big hindrance on creativity.

This creativity is very dear to me, because the rise of visual programming represents possibly the first time that a new generation possesses a tool that no artist of the previous generations (or even in the history of art) had at their disposal.
It's a brand new brush and a brand new canvas.  

The ideal tool would be something akin to QC, but where all the nodes and their source code can be inspected and changed in real time, inside the application. Some apps like Nodebox do this, but are restricted to 2d drawing and don’t seem to have the span of QC. The other thing about QC is that it is tightly integrated with the OS (although this has sometimes made it look like the only thing it is good for is filters or Screen Savers). 
Blender also relies heavily on a node-based environment for material generation and compositing, hopefully in the future one will be able to create and modify geometry as well. If Apple ever pulls QC, I think our hopes rest with the open source community.

While I haven’t really dedicated much time to QC lately, instead focusing on learning to code, I would still like to write some tutorials for QC like one I have planned on generating meshes and 3D objects. While it’s still around, I’ll keep on using it and loving it just as I have so far.