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.

“Slumdog Millionaire”: The Anti-Blockbuster

If there’s one movie that deserves to win a lot of Oscars this year, it’s “Slumdog Millionaire“.

Slumdog Millionaire PosterThis film was made for about a tenth of the budget of the year’s other hot contenter, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. It certainly doesn’t boast the same kind of all-star cast and breakthrough technical wizardry. Instead it has a heart-warming story that is at the same time funny and thought-provoking, a cast of young, obviously enthusiastic actors and a fresh visual style that fuses a “Bourne Identity”-like vitality with Bollywood aestethics. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who also shot some of Lars von Trier’s best movies, certainly did a fantastic job here, as did the rest of the crew.

What’s great to see above all is that a quality movie like this one still can find its way to a mainstream audience without gazillions of marketing money. Just look at the U.S. weekend box office numbers (according to IMDB) since “Slumdog Millionaire” was released in November:

$10,699,629 (USA) (25 January 2009) (1,415 Screens)
$5,849,157 (USA) (18 January 2009) (582 Screens)
$3,782,340 (USA) (11 January 2009) (601 Screens)
$4,690,769 (USA) (4 January 2009) (612 Screens)
$4,301,870 (USA) (28 December 2008) (614 Screens)
$3,053,760 (USA) (21 December 2008) (589 Screens)
$2,175,518 (USA) (14 December 2008) (169 Screens)
$1,402,176 (USA) (7 December 2008) (78 Screens)
$1,346,039 (USA) (30 November 2008) (49 Screens)
$947,795 (USA) (23 November 2008) (32 Screens)
$360,018 (USA) (16 November 2008) (10 Screens)

This gradual audience growth — obviously based on word-of-mouth recommendations — is refreshingly different from the usual Hollywood blockbusters that have one or two strong weekends (bought with a lot of marketing dollars) and then disappear.

Go see it. In my opinion, it’s the movie of the year.

“Benjamin Button”: Can special effects be too good?

Last weekend, my wife and I went to see “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button“, the movie that received the highest number of Oscar nominations this year. Frankly, I wasn’t too thrilled about the movie itself, although it was obviously done very well from a technical standpoint (which is what you would expect from a David Fincher movie).

However, when I later read more about the digital special effects that were used in that movie, I was simply amazed. Since I’m pretty interested in movie technology myself, I can usually spot digital effects. They still tend to look artificial in most cases, particularly when humans are generated digitally.

I therefore was very surprised to find out that the “old” Benjamin Button in the first part of the movie was not played by Brad Pitt under a lot of make-up, but was actually generated digitally. I did not suspect that for a single second during the movie. Some scenes that played at sea very obviously used digital backgrounds, but I never recognized the actual main character as a digital object.

Benjaminbutton
The clip on this page here explains how this was done. Amazing technology!

The scary thing about this is not only that apparently technology has advanced so far that entirely artifical actors seem possible. It’s also that even relative experts don’t recognize these effects as the illusions that they are. And I don’t mean myself, but the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures that will soon vote about who will receive the Oscars. Actually, “Benjamin Button” might be in danger to embarassingly win an Oscar for make-up, but maybe not for special effects, because even people in the movie business don’t recognize this as a digital effect. The movie studios behind “Benjamin Button” have therefore produced a closed website for Academy members that explains everything, in the hope to get the nod in the right category.

And they clearly should receive the SFX Oscar. This is really a breakthrough.