2011 has been a bumpy year for creative professionals who rely on Apple hardware and software to make a living. By some accounts, Cupertino has given up on the pros and is pouring money and resources almost exclusively into the (much more) lucrative consumer market. Is this really true?
There have been a series of events that landed us where we are now, but let’s focus on the two biggest question marks: the future of the Mac Pro and sudden change in direction of FCP X.
As someone who has exclusively used Apple gear throughout my editing career, I have seen a lot of change over the years but also some definite patterns. The earliest systems I worked on were giant plastic Mac towers with lots of internal slots that were stuffed with expensive PCI cards. If everything was working just right we could digitize and edit projects with less efficiency than we can now (a typical day in the edit suite usually involved several reboots and the occasional trip behind the computer to fix a cable or PCI card that decided to slip out of position). In the late 90s Apple sent the professional editing world into a tizzy with new PowerMac G3 towers that only had THREE SLOTS. Where will we jam all those expensive cards? How could Apple turn their back on the tried and true customers who would reliably open their wallets to buy the priciest of gear? I knew editors who jumped to Windows NT (they’ve long since jumped back) because at least IBM and Dell were still making those big multi slot towers.
What happened next caught most of us off guard: the DV revolution. Suddenly, a PowerMac or iMac with nothing more than a FireWire port could ingest native video from consumer and professional cameras. We could edit and create without the need for all that extra third party gear- the speed of the computer itself dictated how much editing and effects power we had at our disposal. The focus shifted away from the hardware that companies like Avid would sell to accelerate the system, and toward the system itself. Editors like me who still needed uncompressed video could now do that with one internal card instead of four of five. The rise of Final Cut Pro led to faster computers from Apple like the PowerMac G4 and G5, right through the latest Intel based Mac Pros we use today.
And that brings us to 2011. This year has seen no new Mac Pro systems, while most of the Mac line–even the Mac mini–has been updated and equipped with Thunderbolt ports that seem to erase the need for internal slots altogether. Just this week I met with some reps from Autodesk, the company that produces high-end finishing solutions like Smoke and Flame, and they set up a demo unit in our office for us to test out for a few weeks. It’s not running on a traditional tricked out workstation, though. This system showed up on a MacBook Pro with a high speed Thunderbolt drive array that sits next to it on the desk.
If Apple does in fact retire the Mac Pro (and I’m still not convinced that will happen just yet) then the company will once again be asking professionals to shift the way they think about their tools, and to embrace the idea of simplifying their setup and their workflow.
FINAL CUT PRO
Regular readers know how I feel about FCP X and Apple’s handling of its rollout, so I won’t retread over the same points again (you can take a look here and here for some background). It’s been about six months since Apple simultaneously released Final Cut Pro X and killed off everything that came before it. I am still working in the “legacy” version of FCP for my day to day work, but I’ve been test driving FCP X, Avid Media Composer 6, and Adobe Premiere Pro 5.5. Competition is a good thing, and these three companies can battle it out by producing better and better tools for people like me.
What’s your next move when you’ve clearly won? That’s the position Apple was in with Final Cut Pro before the release of X. Avid and Adobe (and everyone else) had taken a back seat to the majority marketshare of FCP. The safe approach for Apple would be to start playing defense and focus energy on incremental improvements while fighting to retain the existing customer base. That was Microsoft’s approach once they reached the peak of the desktop world with Windows and Office (check out John Siracusa’s podcast for an excellent take on this). The importance of market share and profits dominated over the desire to build the next great product, and the world of mobile computing subsequently passed them by as iOS and Android made Microsoft seem like an also-ran.
Apple chose to play offense with Final Cut Pro X, and despite all my head scratching over the way the new version works I have to admire them for that. They had to have known on some level that there would be backlash from the pro community for their scorched earth approach to starting over. I treat FCP X as an early work in progress, and when it was first announced I thought that we wouldn’t really know where things were going for at least a year. I stand by that sentiment, but since then several point release updates tell me we might be heading in the right direction.