The death of the shared family computer

Computers, like telephones, originally entered U.S. homes in a single unit, tucked away just out of sight but usually accessible to all. Katie Reid at The Verge:

I can still see the Dell I grew up using as clear as day, like I just connected to NetZero yesterday. It sat in my eldest sister’s room, which was just off the kitchen. Depending on when you peeked into the room, you might have found my dad playing Solitaire, my sister downloading songs from Napster, or me playing Wheel of Fortune or writing my name in Microsoft Paint. The rules for using the family desktop were pretty simple: homework trumped games; Dad trumped all. Like the other shared equipment in our house, its usefulness was focused and direct: it was a tool that the whole family used, and it was our portal to the wild, weird, wonderful internet. As such, we adored it.

I remember the phenomenon of losing my dial up internet connection because someone picked up the phone, or patiently waiting my turn to check my email. The PowerMac 7200 (or the IIsi before it) was parked in a spare bedroom and required time and effort to log on. The thought of having unlimited personal access to the internet anywhere you went seemed crazy.

Today when I stand on the subway platform virtually everyone is staring down, their faces aglow in blue light. I’m just as guilty as anyone else- with Bluetooth earbuds plugged into my head I commute in a personal media bubble. As a perfect example of “do as I say and not as I do” we attempt to limit the kids’ access to devices as best we can, knowing that society will eventually force us to relinquish control. Katie Reid:

The advent of constant access has inevitably changed our relationship with tech. At one time, discovering the magical capabilities of our devices astonished and invigorated us. Now, we find them glomming on to our routines: joining us for dinner or family strolls, going on vacations or out on dates with us, waking us up in the morning and tucking us in at night. Though it was harder to come by, the computer time you ended up with on the shared family desktop was cherished and, maybe as a result, that much sweeter. Yet there was an untroubled ritual that, day after day, required us to step away.

The Apple Newton shipped 25 years ago today

On August 2, 1993 Apple Computer launched the Newton MessagePad. In development longer than it was on the market, the Newton was one of Apple’s flashier failures. Born with the Newton was the notion of a “personal digital assistant” and portable pen computing. You could manage a calendar, jot down notes (with Newton’s initially maligned handwriting recognition), store your contacts, and…send a fax or two.

It’s not hard, however, to see the Newton as the prototype of what virtually everyone carries around in their pocket today: a computer that you can take out into the world with you. Newton ran an early version of the ARM processor, the descendant of which lives inside the current iPhone. The space in time between the ’90s Newton and mid-2000s iPhone was occupied by a parade of short lived, pen-based PDAs from Palm, Handspring. Sony, Microsoft, and others.

And let’s not forget how the Newton put Doonesbury firmly on the map.

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iFixit’s 128K Mac teardown

iFixit takes a break from cracking open the latest Mac Pro and turns their attention to the original Mac for the 30th anniversary of its release.

Cult of Mac will have us note that no vintage Macinti were harmed in the making of this guide — although with a pretty awesome 7 out of 10 repairability score, they didn’t have to worry much about us breaking it. Disassembly was straightforward once we figured out how to open the case.

FCPX’s “Cold Mountain” moment

Editors familiar with Final Cut Pro’s history know that the legacy version of the application gained some major traction in the pro marketplace following Walter Murch’s decision to edit 2003’s Cold Mountain with FCP.  Over a decade later (and almost three years after its release) Final Cut Pro X is on the edge of a similar game changer.

This week, fcp.co linked to a ten minute presentation from Neil Smith from LumaForge at the Digital Cinema Society meeting last month.  Smith describes (without giving names) how a major Hollywood studio is editing a “100 million dollar movie” using six Final Cut Pro X workstations running Mavericks and connected to an Xsan.  In listening to the details that Smith lays out, it was surmised by fcp.co forum member Ronny Courtens that the film in question is Focus, starring Will Smith.

The obvious question: why is a Hollywood studio going against the Avid grain to cut a motion picture in X?  According to Neil Smith, the directors themselves are the driving force- they have been editing with FCPX on their MacBook Pros for two years and insisted upon using it for this feature.  The studio pushed back, but the the film’s producer had enough clout and sided with the directors, and they got their way.  They touted the creative power and flexibility of X as well as the relatively low cost of the buildout as the main reasons behind their decision.

2014 should be a tipping point for Final Cut Pro, one that’s been in the making for quite some time.  New Mac Pros will (finally) be arriving in editors’ hands, and the solid upgrade to version 10.1 (its 10th revision since 2011) brings FCP to a new level of capability in a shared professional environment.

FCPX and breaking with the past

As FCP7 continues its long slow march into the sunset, I still find myself using it for one crucial task: creating HDCAM masters.  I’ve been editing in FCPX, exporting master ProRes files, and dropping them into a Final Cut Pro 7 sequence (with color bars and countdown slates) for delivery to tape.  It works, but it’s just one more hoop to jump through.

With the impending release of the new Mac Pro running Mavericks, I’ve been wondering just how well FCP7 will perform on it.  Back in 2011 Apple promised support for 7 in Lion, but has not extended that support for Mountain Lion or Mavericks in the years since.  It’s also worth noting that with OS X 10.9 Mavericks Apple has deprecated the QuickTime APIs that Final Cut Pro 7 relies on.  What does it mean to be deprecated?  Here’s Apple to explain:

From time to time, Apple adds deprecation macros to APIs to indicate that those APIs should no longer be used in active development. When a deprecation occurs, it is not an immediate end of life to the specified API. Instead, it is the beginning of a grace period for transitioning off that API and onto newer and more modern replacements.

As a developer, it is important that you avoid using deprecated APIs in your code as soon as possible. At a minimum, new code you write should never use deprecated APIs. And if you have existing code that uses deprecated APIs, you should update that code as soon as possible

So the writing is on the wall, but in the meantime there are plenty of editors who still need to deliver “legacy” videotape to their customers.  Here are a few solutions I’ve been considering:

  • Keep one legacy Mac on the network running 10.7 and FCP7, and feed final QuickTime files to it to go to tape.
  • Use the third party app that ships with the capture card (or Thunderbolt box) I’m using for capture and output now.  I’ve been testing Blackmagic’s Media Express and it’s pretty solid.
  • Hope my clients stop asking for tapes.

I’m kidding about that last point, but only a little.  Among my customers there’s really only one network that still asks for tape, and they are talking seriously about going all file-based delivery in 2014.

Incremental progress vs. starting over

As creative professionals in 2013 we often find ourselves bridging a divide, with Adobe’s products on one side and Apple’s on the other.  I spend most of my time switching between Final Cut Pro X and After Effects (with Motion 5 thrown in for good measure).  FCPX is by far my NLE of choice, and going back to FCP7 or Premiere feels like a trip back in time.  Meanwhile, After Effects is still the reigning champ of the motion graphics world, so learning it is a must.  But looking at these two applications side by side illustrates two very different philosophies when it comes to embracing change moving forward.

After Effects is an incredibly deep and useful piece of software with a history and code base that dates back over 20 years.  Each successive release has added new features and workflow improvements while retaining practically everything that came before.  It is in Adobe’s best interest to keep their customer base happy, and not rocking the boat seems to be their plan to achieve that (Creative Cloud subscription controversies notwithstanding).

The downside is that this strategy may ultimately hold Adobe back.  Freelance editor and animator Lou Borella posted an interesting comparison video on Vimeo that highlights the performance differences between After Effects (CS6 and CC) and Apple’s Motion 5- it’s really worth a watch, and make sure you stick around to browse the comments.  While both versions of AE struggle to play back a single HD video clip in his demonstration, Motion handles it effortlessly, even after he applies additional layers and filters during real time looping playback.  His argument is that the legacy code in After Effects is preventing the program from fully embracing current hardware advances.

Apple, as we know, took a different route when Final Cut Pro was at a crossroads.  FCP7 was stuck in 32-bit and could only address a fraction of the RAM installed in high end systems.  Most material shot with newer cameras had to be transcoded to ProRes before editing could begin, which took many hours of productivity killing time.  Apple responded with version X.  Here are a few of my comments on the state of the transition back in September 2011:

I’ve said this before, but FCP X is not finished.  It feels like a stable beta release, but one where many features are missing or incomplete.  If I was forced to make a decision today to switch from FCP 7 to something else, the answer would be clear: X is not an option.  But a year from now?  Two years from now?  Things could be entirely different.  The question is whether or not the pro editing community can hold on that long.

It’s been two years, and things are indeed a lot different. Final Cut Pro has seen a steady march of point release updates (with a major revision coming next month alongside the new Mac Pro) and I’m using it for virtually every broadcast editing job that comes my way.  Adobe Premiere and After Effects are great products and will continue to be the go-to tools for a large portion of the market.  After Effects in particular is extremely powerful and I use it daily, although the lure of real time playback and a refined interface has me dipping more and more into Motion 5 lately.

Apple’s definition of “Pro”

post by Ken Segall has made the rounds this week, where he describes a moment behind closed doors where Steve Jobs considered abandoning the pro market.

I hope you’re sitting down for this, but Steve Jobs did in fact once consider that very option.

This was back in the days when iMac had established itself as a global bestseller. During one of the agency’s regular meetings with Steve, he shared that he was considering killing the pro products.

His rationale was as you might expect: consumer products have an unlimited upside, while pro products are aimed at a niche market that eats up major resources.

This obviously never came to pass, but some would argue that Apple has strayed too far from what the industry considers “pro” with Final Cut Pro X and the new cylindrical Mac Pro.

Some won’t like it, but basically it’s the difference between Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X.

In FCP7, the controls are rich and deep. As a consequence, getting proficient with the app is a serious undertaking.

FCPX is very powerful, but less daunting and more seductive — streamlining and automating some of its advanced capabilities.

There seems to be a correlation for many where “pro” must equate to “impenetrably difficult for the non-pro.”  Yes, Apple has made the basics of Final Cut Pro approachable for someone new to editing, but that doesn’t automate the process of ideas and creativity.

The real question is whether or not Apple has chosen the right path for the future of its professional products.  They could have moved the feature set of FCP 7 to a modern 64 bit architecture, darkened the color scheme a bit, and called it a day. Pros would have been happy to not re-learn what they already knew, and there would be a bump in performance and better codec support.  This is similar to the course taken with Premiere Pro- evolutionary but not revolutionary.

Instead, Final Cut Pro X is more than a re-write.  It’s an entirely new set of concepts with a lower barrier of entry for the new or intermediate editor.  This is not to say that the “pro” isn’t in Final Cut Pro anymore.  It’s there, just beneath the surface, perhaps most importantly in the new attention to database driven organization.  Anyone working in X who has sifted through footage marking favorites or tagging keywords will attest to the power and flexibility of the software.  The timeline has an index that allows the editor to quickly find or isolate clips based on a host of criteria.  Roles are an easy way to organize files for export to post audio.  The list goes on.

Apple’s definition of “pro” has evolved to allow non-professionals easier access to the basics, while also giving seasoned veterans the speed and tools they need to create great work.  This gives Apple two areas of growth instead of one, and it’s hard to see a downside for anyone in this equation.