On risk, failure, and the future of Final Cut Pro

(The title of this post is shamelessly derived from the Creative Cow forum post that inspired me to write it.)

For reasons I’ve already laid out at extensive length, I am entirely convinced that Apple does not intend to abandon the pro video editing market. If that’s the case, Final Cut Pro X is clearly a huge risk. Apple is not a company that’s afraid of risk, however.

One of my favorite examples of this dates to the early days of the iPod, when Apple introduced the iPod mini, which had 1/4 of the storage of other iPods, and was only $50 cheaper.

Critics were all sure the iPod mini would fail; who’d buy a player with a capacity that much smaller, just to get a slimmer form factor? A year later, the mini was the most popular music player in the world, and Apple canceled it to introduce the iPod nano, which was the same price and had even less storage space. The nano, of course, went on to cement Apple’s position as the overwhelmingly dominant force in the music player market.

From the Mac’s two major architectural transitions, to the elimination of the floppy drive in 1998, to the launch of the iPad into a tablet market that had been moribund for a decade, Apple is a company that often takes risks, and rarely fails.

Well, Apple has unleashed Final Cut Pro X on the editing community, and the editing community is up in arms. Is FCP X one of Apple’s rare failures?

I doubt it.

The truth is, most of the backlash over the last ten days has not been a direct consequence of people reacting negatively to the product’s substance. It has been a consequence of people erroneously believing, because of a handful of missing features, some superficial similarities with iMovie, and a whole lot of preexisting paranoia, that FCP X signals Apple’s departure from the pro market.

Many people who have actually sat down to edit something with the new app, giving it a fair shot on its own terms instead of merely being frustrated that it works differently, have said positive things about it. My experience has been that the new timeline is really just a lot of fun to edit with (the importance of this should not be underestimated), there are some great new organizational features, and in terms of speed and quality, the new engine is a home run.

Six months from now, you will be able to take a sequence out of FCP X and bring it into Resolve. There will probably be a way to export OMF that doesn’t cost $500. You will have more control over audio track exports. You will almost certainly be able to hook up a real video monitor. While some detractors will still grasp at straws, and while there will still be a few gaps and limitations here and there, the claims that FCP X is not a pro app will have been pretty thoroughly undermined.

Pros will start doing interesting things with it. After a while someone will cut an indie feature with it, and Apple will run a profile on them where they rave about the importance of metadata and the freedom of the magnetic timeline, and talk about how they did assembly edits on location using MacBook Pros with Thunderbolt RAIDs.

Word will get around that rumors of Final Cut’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

Nobody has to believe me about this today. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see. But, not to toot my own horn too much here, I am the guy who predicted this whole present blowup, in broad strokes, over a year ago:

We’re going to get the OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch goodness that everyone wants. But we’re not going to get an app with a strict superset of Final Cut Pro’s functionality. Instead, we’re going to get an app that Apple believes is better overall for the tasks video editors perform, even if some features are cut. And we might also get a significantly overhauled UI; something that results from a process of sitting down and questioning every assumption about how editing interfaces currently work.

In short, I think they’ll come up with something really interesting… that will probably cause a bunch of people to totally freak out about how Apple has ruined everything and make forceful public declarations about how they’re leaving the platform. Meanwhile, people actually willing to embrace the thing might discover it has a bit of that iPad ‘magic’.

I think I have a pretty good feel for these things.

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4 Responses to On risk, failure, and the future of Final Cut Pro

  1. Nicely stated. Hopefully, it’s a beginning and not the end that so many are insisting it be.

  2. John Young says:

    I agree with you that some of the details (xml, OMF, multicam) will be worked out in time. I can’t believe it’s even a question as to whether you can hook up a video monitor or not. It’s a bedrock feature that at this point in 2011 should not be left out when shipping an NLE product. That they’ve been so hedgy about it worries me but I assume it must happen at some point.

    I won’t comment on the timeline yet because I haven’t really used it extensively, and it could be that I end up liking the way it works, except to say that I do like seeing all of of the tracks of audio. I don’t want to collapse everything down. When I’m working fast, with clients in the room, I need to be able to see everything.

    What worries me most are some basic design decisions that I’m not sure that they will change because they aren’t ‘sexy demo’ features. I think the layout is horribly inefficient. The Project library wastes tons of space on thumbnails that are really useless information. I routinely deal with many sequences and you can only see a few at a time in the library. I really want bins back, and there’s no reason they can’t exist alongside keywording. I want to be able to do a baseline organization of my footage, and then tag to add a second layer of organization. And I’d really like a viewer back. It could easily fit in a two monitor setup with events on the second monitor.

    Obviously, time will tell how this plays out. There’s an interesting blog post from the guy who started Posterous. I don’t have the link handy, but he worked on FCP for many years and he lays out why Apple is not focused on the professional market. It may happen that FCPX dovetails with professionals’ needs, but it will not be their first priority, like it will be with Avid and Adobe.

  3. Chris Kenny says:

    I suspect they shipped without video output (and are being a little vague about it) because there are infrastructure issues surrounding it. Remember, FCP X is no longer based on QuickTime, but on the new AV Foundation. Apple needs to add support for video I/O there first, which could be tied up with other OS-level issues.

    As far as the issue of whether pros are Apple’s first priority… well, first off (and I’m guilty of this as well), people keep saying “pros” when they mostly mean “broadcasters and post houses”. FCP X is almost entirely targeted at “pros”, because consumers don’t spend $300 on video editing applications. The truth is, the vast majority of projects ever created in Final Cut Pro don’t get laid back to HDCAM, aren’t sent to another app for color/audio work, etc.

    Based on existing announcements, Apple is clearly interested in adding features for folks who need these things, but the product is primarily targeted at at the larger market of people who get paid to edit video — and so was the previous FCP, really. The previous FCP had just been around for long enough that Apple had had a chance to add more niche features.

    And in my opinion, this is all fine. There is a pattern with technology products that overly specialized tools end up being expensive and difficult to use, because they sell in small quantities, and usability often goes out the window once developers start telling themselves their users are all highly trained operators.

  4. Taylor says:

    I totally understand that some features are missing, and that is typical of the 1.o release. That’s a given.

    However, the amount of professional features lost, combined with the immediate removal v7…. That’s irresponsible, nay, adversarial to the user base it has built up in the last decade. All the money invested in hardware and software, MILLIONS, and Apple treats it’s base of customer like this? No thanks Jobs. I’ll stick with my avid. It still is a better editor.

    And Avid must be thrilled, because all the professional jobs are going back to them. Maybe a few obscure smaller houses moving to premiere for the integration.

    Personaly, I’ve used X. I reccomended it to my gf, so she cut cut cutesy lil home projects. But I would be unable to recommend it for anything else. It’s not a 1.0 that was ready for release. It probably needed a full other year.

    And some actual editors trying it out.

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