FCP X: Apple’s strategic focus and the consumerization of video editing

faq_icon.jpg The “consumerization of IT” is a trend that started about 5 years ago and that has been reshaping the world of information technology quite radically. Consumer technology such as smartphones, lightweight web-based applications and now tablets has invaded more and more enterprises, to the shock of IT managers everywhere.

The biggest winner of this trend is of course Apple, which now has a market cap close to that of the old Wintel (Microsoft/Intel) monopoly. Apple basically owns the high-end laptop market, even though MacBooks are still not considered “enterprise technology” by most IT departments. It totally dominates tablets, and it makes more than 50% of all profits of the mobile phone industry, even though its market share is still small.

Consumerization is what took Apple from a barely surviving also-ran to the dominant technology company of our time. Is it surprising that Steve Jobs and his lieutenants are focusing all their resources on this successful strategy? For instance, Apple recently killed its pro-level server business (Xserve), effectively exiting the data center market.

The latest victim of this strategy is the Final Cut Pro (FCP) line of video editing applications. FCP Studio is probably the most popular suite of video production software in the market. It started small a decade ago as a cheap alternative to Avid, but it is now the choice of many high-end editors in broadcast TV and even Hollywood. Nowadays even editor legend Walter Murch uses FCP, which once was ridiculed as a toy by the movie tech intelligentsia.

The new version of Final Cut, FCP X, caused a major sh*tstorm in the editor community when it was released two weeks ago. It gets only a 3-star rating in the App Store, attracting comments such as “FCP X = Windows Vista” (which probably is not meant as a compliment). Countless articles complain about all the missing features that professional editors can’t do without, not least the baffling fact that FCP X can’t import projects from older versions of FCP.

So what’s going on here?

First of all, FCP X is a great product, if still a bit 1.0. I’ve been playing with it for a couple of weeks now, and I certainly won’t go back to the old FCP or any of its clones (such as Adobe Premiere Pro). FCP X reinvented quite a few things in how editing is done, and most of the changes are really great, speeding up the editing process considerably.

But FCP X also asks you to relearn a lot of things. It can do practically everything FCP 7 could do and a lot more, but many tasks are just done very differently. There are a lot of “WTF?” moments when you switch to FCP X, but once you discover what the new way of doing things is, it all makes a lot of sense. I’ve only encountered one or two things that I still find more elegant in the old FCP.

To use a metaphor from my other field of work: it’s like learning a new programming language. When you switch from something like C++ or Java to Python or Ruby, a lot of things look strange or even ridiculously simplistic. But after a while, you don’t miss the overhead that the old tool required you to deal with. You recognize that the irritating, seemingly amateurish simplicity is actually productivity-enhancing elegance.

That’s great for prosumers and lone-wolf freelancers, but it’s no consolation for the high-end editing pros who depend on sophisticated, highly specialized workflows. Relearning everything and reorganizing your corporate workflow is not a great proposition for somebody who constantly works under tight deadlines.

So is Apple trying to consciously scare off the high-end pro market? In some ways, yes. Every successful business has to decide what its focus is, who its customers are. Even for a giant company like Apple it’s incredibly difficult to serve entirely different target markets.

High-end video production houses and broadcast stations often run their video production infrastructure like traditional enterprise IT: A central department decides which platform to use. Then internal technical people and consultants implement the system, endlessly tweaking every detail, and the maintenance of the whole system takes considerable resources. Individual workers don’t get to choose what tools they want to work with, but have to adapt to the rules of the organization (Don’t like our Avid system? Go look for another job).

Apple is great at selling stuff to people who make their own purchasing decisions, be it consumers, freelancers or even employees of larger corporations who have enough authority to choose their own tools. Apple is not very good at dealing with IT departments and at adapting its products to the myriad specialized requirements that larger organizations have.

The old FCP clearly suffered from feature creep that was dictated by larger customers, and that made the product difficult to use for the broader prosumer market. It looks like Apple made a clear decision with FCP X: It’s going after the big mass market, and if that means it’s going to lose the high-end segment, so be it. There’s really no other good explanation for the fact that Apple released FCP X without some crucial pro-level features.

Always remember that software is a tiny piece of Apple’s business, and the pro segment is even tinier. But pros are a tough crowd to please, and Apple probably just decided that this can’t be a priority anymore. It looks like it will deliver some of the missing features, but probably not on the scale the pros hoped for. Tough for the professionals who invested a lot in FCP, but this kind of gut-wrenching change is the reality of technology markets. Remember IBM selling off its PC business? Didn’t please a lot of people either.

Without a doubt Apple will lose a lot of fans in the video editing community. But it now has an editing product that is years ahead of everything else, perfect for the big and growing market of serious hobbyists, freelance editors (particularly in online media), independent filmmakers and corporate marketing users. It’s a big bet, but it could pay off.

5 thoughts on “FCP X: Apple’s strategic focus and the consumerization of video editing”

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