Apple's release of FCPX has shaken the digital content creation industry, and raised a lot of speculation among editors about how much Apple understands or cares about professional users. Walter Soyka looks into the issues in this two part series.
In Part 1
of this series, I described the long string of impressive investments and innovations that Apple made around Final Cut Pro during its first decade on the market. Apple took a third-party product and built an entire post-production ecosystem around it.
Apple changed the face of post-production, adding capabilities and slashing costs. Final Cut Studio was a transformative force in the content creation industry, enabling even one-man studios like mine to comfortably compete in a space that had been the domain of much larger facilities due to high barriers to entry and massive capital requirements only a decade before.
However, at the same time that Apple's consumer products took off in the market, Apple made a series of decisions that have led many to question their dedication to professional content creators, culminating with the release of FCPX.
Deciding Not to Decide
Once I saw how different FCPX was from FCP, I revisited my previous strategy of automatically upgrading FCP at each new release and ignoring other offerings.
There are some really compelling features in FCPX, like color management, linear floating point compositing, pervasive metadata, support for 4K frame sizes, and OpenCL processing over multiple CPU cores and GPUs. However, since the initial release of FCPX lacked features I need in order to work (legacy project support, video monitoring, and interchange with other applications), I knew I would have to start considering my other options. I wasn't initially concerned with the "big" questions about Apple's place in the industry - I was only concerned with making sure that I'd still be able to keep my clients happy and handle all the work that came through the door.
I already had a few licenses of Premiere Pro from my Adobe bundles, so I started working with that. I took advantage of Avid's FCP cross-promotion. I've also started training on Autodesk Smoke.
The point here is not that I chose to ignore FCPX and replace FCP in my toolset with Premiere Pro or Media Composer. After all, none of the big vendors here have a perfect track record: Apple killed a mature, industry-leading product and replaced it with a work in progress, and Autodesk killed Discreet Edit with no replacement in sight. Avid threatened to pull Media Composer from the Mac platform, and Adobe skipped two releases of Premiere Pro on the Mac altogether.
With so much uncertainty in the air, I simply wasn't sure which tool was the best fit for me today and which tool would be the best in the coming years, so I decided not to decide.
With Adobe and Avid looking to capitalize on Apple's misstep, license prices were at all-time lows, so it seemed like a good time to invest in broadening my business's capabilities, rather than putting all my chips on any one product.
I've been very critical of FCPX, but I think it's foolish to count Apple out. The FCPX 10.0.1 update and pre-announcement of 2012 features shows that the ProApps team has heard the criticism on both the product and their communication strategy. I'm hopeful that they will continue to improve FCPX, but that doesn't change my concerns about the larger trend I see developing. My work demands niche products with some special features and the ability to work well with other apps, not mass-market products that appeal to broader markets at the expense of specific features I'm interested in.
FCPX and the Domino Effect
With Adobe, Apple, and Avid licenses in place, I began to re-think what my needs for editorial really were and which tools would be appropriate for specific projects. My business looks a lot different now than it did a few years ago. Though I initially did editorial and finishing work exclusively, I now do more motion design, presentation design, graphics, animation, and effects work.
In addition to general motion work, I have a niche specialty in live event content design for blended projection widescreen and multi-screen systems. I work in huge, arbitrary frame sizes and non-standard aspect ratios. I use Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Maxon Cinema 4D on a daily basis. While editorial is important to the work I do, it's no longer the only work I do; as such, I'm just as concerned about integrating my NLE into the rest of my workflow as I am about the NLE's internal workflow.
Working in live events, display and playback is just as important as the actual creative work. Many of these apps are PC-only, so I've been running a cross-platform studio for years, currently with 7 Macs and 3 PCs. I've always split the work across platforms: I'd use PCs for all the specialty display/playback software, but I kept all my creative work on Macs.
As I've increased the amount and complexity of the 3D work I'm doing, I've started budgeting the purchase of a small render farm. I had always planned on buying Macs for operational simplicity, since I did all my creative work on Macs. As I started using Premiere Pro and Avid Media Composer, though, I realized that if I wasn't going to rely on FCP as my main editorial system anymore, there were no apps tying me to the Mac platform anymore: every other piece of general creative software I use is cross-platform.
I started running some numbers, comparing PC render nodes to Mac render nodes. In fairness, it's not an even, apples-to-apples comparison; it's easy to configure a mid-range PC machine with no directly comparable Macintosh available. However, for a render node, I'm not interested in a fair platform comparison -- all I care about is price per unit performance with comparable reliability.
Once I realized that I could get almost twice as much power from a PC-based render farm than a similarly budgeted Mac-based render farm, I started reconsidering my automatic decision to continue using Macintosh workstations instead of PC workstations.
Comparing PC workstations and Mac workstations is an apples-to-apples comparison, and the difference in pricing is not as significant. Apple's pricing is actually a bit more competitive than most PC workstation manufacturers, but arguably at the expense of configuration options, including number of PCIe slots and graphics card selection.
Apple is highly innovative, but their innovation is highly targeted -- they create carefully curated user experiences. As I outlined in Part 1 of this series, Apple's recent trend has been toward an ever-increasing presence in consumer's lives. You can have an iMac on your desk at home, a MacBook Air in your briefcase, an iPad in your purse, and an iPhone in your pocket, and soon the iCloud will tie them all together. As is evident in all these designs, Apple appreciates simplicity and miniaturization.
That's fine at home, but that's not what I'm looking for in a machine at work. I need flexibility and power, and I can easily find many options for these on the PC platform, running most of the same software I'm already using.
I am not interested in switching over my entire studio to PCs right now. I've made a sizeable investment in Apple hardware and software, and I fully intend on keeping these machines busy with billable work as long as I can. That said, as I look back at my line of thinking over the past few months, I've come to see FCP as the linchpin that was holding the entire Macintosh platform in place in my studio.
I'm discouraged by Apple's apparent shift away from specialized professional markets. I'm worried about the rumors that the next generation Mac Pro will be smaller and better suited to a broader market, more interested in mid-range performance than high performance. I'm no longer confident that Apple will continue providing solutions for me in the long term.
I really enjoy the Mac experience, and I'd like to keep using Macs alongside PCs in my business, so I hope that I'm wrong about Apple's direction. I hope that they will surprise me and put some compelling professional products on the marketplace. Here's what I'd like to see from Apple to know that they're developing products I can rely on:
For FCPX, I'm looking for Apple to open up the platform very broadly to third parties, to let them build an ecosystem around FCPX as they had built one around FCP. I'm looking for Apple to end their practice of preferential treatment for a handful of developers. I'd also like to see Apple reexamine post-production industry standards, integrate them directly into the architecture instead of relying on third-party bridges, and be more open to the needs of existing users when rethinking industrial applications.
For the operating system and applications, I'm looking for an end to the absolute movement away from complexity. Previous generations of Apple products have balanced power and flexibility against complexity very well, but I'm afraid that the direction of FCPX and Lion runs the risk of sacrificing too much power to gain simplicity that professionals don't need. I'm looking for Apple to continue building on some of the amazing technologies they've built into Mac OS X, but also to offer third-party developers more stability and a longer roadmap so they can feel more comfortable committing to the platform.
For hardware, I want to see power prioritized on the high end over style or size. While an iMac may have enough horsepower for most HD editorial, 3D and heavy compositing has much larger memory and processing requirements. If the Mac Pro starts sliding away from the high-end and into the mid-range currently occupied by the iMac as some have speculated, no number of ThunderBolt ports will make up for the loss of performance potential for applications with high system requirements. I'd also like to see more workstation-class graphics cards with stable, high performance drivers enabling GPGPU (General Purpose computing on Graphics Processing Units) through both CUDA and OpenCL.
Now that I no longer have FCP to keep me full-time on the Mac platform, I will treat my hardware and operating system choices the same way that I will treat my editorial application choices: learning and using a new app, system or workflow must now be just another day at the office. A broad perspective that looks beyond single-vendor choices will open up new creative options.
I want to stay nimble. I'll pursue more cross-platform workflows, continually re-evaluate competitive applications, and always keep my options open. I'll use the right tool for the job, whether it's a Mac or a PC, and I'll be better prepared for whatever surprises the future will inevitably bring.