Friday, September 2, 2011

Apple Comes Out Swinging: Hits Below Belt

One of the biggest changes in the film industry right now is happening outside the general scrutiny of the public. Several months ago, Apple rolled out the highly anticipated new version of Final Cut Studio, thier well-used, well-loved professional-level editing suite. Skipping right over versions 8 and 9 to a cool Roman 10, the new product rolled out as FCPX.

It was a resounding failure.

The new program has a completely different user interface, key shortcuts and throughput capabilities. It won't export edit decision lists, capture video from tape sources, and it's not backwards-compatible-- if you have a legacy project in Final Cut 7 and want to port it upwards, you're outta luck. It bears a strong resemblance to iMovie, the free, consumer-level editing software that comes with your laptop, so much so that post-industry wags dubbed FCPX "iMovie Pro."

At some point, I understand what Apple was trying to do: make a clean break with a system that utilizes a more powerful core engine. The core engine is the video processor system that drives all the renders and makes things like FCP work. From Final Cut 1 to Final Cut 7, they've all been driven by the QuickTime engine, which was state of the art about a decade ago. FCPX utilizes an engine based on AVC and AVCHD, which is state-of-the-art (and is used by most prosumer camcorders these days) and blazingly fast.

The problem here is the calculation Apple made that professional users of FCP, a billion-dollar market, would blindly follow on the brand name alone. These professional users have deadlines, large libraries of legacy projects, and mortgages to pay-- and can't spare the time to dick around with a product that, fast as it may be, is "unsuitable for professional workflow."

People seem to have a fixation on Apple as a cutting-edge, market-making company with unique ideas, and they're right. But innovation is risk-taking, and that means Apple is less a cautious computer hardware company and more based on a movie studio model (As Steve Jobs was a founder of Pixar, this isn't a surprise, I hope.) Invest in a far-out idea, market the hell out of it, shove it out there and hope for a blockbuster. This worked for the iPod, iPhone, iPad and a lot of other stuff. It DIDN'T work for the Apple Lisa, AppleTV, and the Cube. And now it didn't work for FCPX.

If you need an example of a traditional computer hardware company's approach to marketing, consider the Toshiba laptop. They're completely reliable machines, tough and robust-- and they barely change from model to model. a 2011 Satellite looks like a 2001 Satellite. Toshiba bases their business model on market share, not market making.

But innovation becomes something of an ethical issue if you have thousands of users dependent on you for their livelihood. If that's the case, innovation becomes self-serving: killing legacy compatibility and altering features beyond usefulness makes the upgrade risky for most. And there is a definite show-biz angle to this story: A lot of people, from movie studios to indie-film hacks, cut their movies on the Final Cut Pro platform. There is a good chance that TV show you just watched, the movie you just saw, or the DVD you just got from Netflix, came to you through the FCP workflow. (Not your Blu-ray, though: more below.)

And yes, this has affected my business in a big way. I make DVDs for a living, and the suite of programs in FCPX does NOT include DVD Studio Pro. (this is somewhat understandable, as DVDs haven't changed all that much in the last 6 years or so, so upgrading the authoring software is sorta redundant.) Fortunately, the fine folks at Adobe have a wonderful suite of recently hotrodded editing and authoring solutions-- the Creative Suite. They saw Apple stumble badly with FCPX and are sweeping up market share with half-off offers for switching to Premiere 5.5-- and have subtly altered the look and feel of it to something approximating classic Final Cut Pro. I'm already using Premiere and Adobe Encore to author BluRay-- a format Apple still refuses to support! So I'm gonna persevere with FCP7 and DVD Studio pro until they rot off my hard drives (or a new Mac OS refuses to open them anymore) then head across the street to Adobe.

Apple has a right to do whatever they want with their products, of course. But as the legal aphorism goes, your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. And there are quite a few video pros out there with bloody noses looking to hang out with a less pugilistic company.


  1. Nothing to dispute here.

    Now that apple has a leadership position in the market, they're gonna discover first-hand what happens when they step too hard on the businesses that got them there.

    It's distressing to watch them carefully trod on their user base more and more lately, just like the other guys...

  2. I wonder if this was Jobs' last attempt to completely change a user base before he stepped down? You know, he loves doing that.