Thoughts on Apple

Posted on by Larry

Commentary.jpgThis last weekend, just before the launch of the 10.2 upgrade to Final Cut Pro X, I was invited to a briefing by Apple covering the latest versions of Final Cut, Compressor and Motion. I am privileged to have these meetings and never take them for granted.

These press presentations are carefully crafted to convey specific themes and messages that the company wants to share with the world. This format is necessary for people who are new to following the company, or only follow it sporadically.

MY goal, however, is to jump right to the details; because I already know the company mission and products and I don’t really care who is using the product – I care about how all the REST of us can successfully use the product.

(Smile…) This makes for a very interesting meeting!

SOME BACKGROUND

The first thing you need to know is that the Final Cut team at Apple is really smart and cares a lot about their products, the process of editing and creating high quality results. My first direct contact with Apple was more than twenty years ago and in every meeting since I’ve been struck by their dedication and understanding of the market.

I can, and do, disagree publicly and behind-the-scenes with some of the choices they make, but I’ve never questioned their goal to do the very best they can.

The second thing you need to know is that there is a large team working on Final Cut. As software development goes, this is a large group.

A derogatory comment is often made that Final Cut pales in comparison to the iPhone. Heck, EVERYTHING pales in comparison to the iPhone. Every other corporation in the world would give up body parts to have a product success like an iPhone.

This complaint misses the bigger question: With a hit like the iPhone, why does anything ELSE at Apple exist? And the answer is that Apple feels it is necessary for the larger goals they are trying to achieve.

MUSING PHILOSOPHICAL

The reason behind this article, though, was a thought that occurred to me during the briefing: Apple’s core strength is the interface.

Computer-based video editing began long before Final Cut was released twelve years ago. But Apple made it accessible by simplifying the interface. There is no question that Final Cut revolutionized the process of video editing and exploded it into markets far beyond traditional broadcast; despite heavy and on-going competition from Avid, Adobe and a flock of PC-based software companies.

Story-telling didn’t change. Shooting film and video didn’t change. But the interface to how we stitch clips together was rethought and simplified.

Final Cut Pro X didn’t change story-telling, nor the technical process of stitching clips together. But it DID rethink the interface. Love it or hate it – and there are plenty of people on both sides of that issue – Apple did what it does best and simplified the interface.

Simplifying the interface is not the same as removing power or features. It is the process of making those features easier to use. (Look at the last two major upgrades from Adobe; both of them featured a cleaner, simpler interface. It is easier to find something in a clean room than in a messy one.)

I’ve known for a long time that it is easier to write long than a short. When you only have a few words, each word has to work harder.

NOTE: Ernest Hemingway is credited with the six word short story: “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never used.” The power of that simple story has stuck with me for years.

The same thing is true for interfaces. Creating a cluttered interface is easy, just look at any medical data entry form. Creating a clean, simple interface that is focused on accomplishing a task is really, really hard.

Apple needs – and has – a vibrant ecosystem of third-party developers creating innovative features for its products. But, the one thing a developer can’t do is change the Final Cut interface. Only Apple can do that.

But that entails a big risk. Years ago, back when Apple gave on-the-record interviews, the executive then in charge of the Final Cut team made a comment that I’ve never forgotten. When I asked why Apple had not made a particular change to Final Cut, he replied: “You change the interface at your peril.”

That comment stuck with me: Adding features is easy, changing how we interact with those features is fraught. The launch of Final Cut Pro X proved that. Yet changing the interface is essential if software is going to grow yet still remain useful.

In the 10.2 release of Final Cut are numerous interface changes, including:

None of these make headlines, but everyone of these makes editing and effects easier.

To me, this is the great strength of Apple: it is not afraid to tweak the interface, even if it runs the risk of making the rest of us feel uncomfortable until we learn the new system.

Adding flashy new features is fun; but can be done by anyone. Continuing to streamline and refine the interface is essential; and that can be done only by Apple.

SUMMARY

During our meetings, I’m constantly questioning why Apple chose to do something, or why they didn’t do more, or suggest features that are needed but not yet implemented. As the entire Final Cut team knows, my goal is to provide feedback from the field, offer suggestions to improve the product, or determine the status of fixing problems.

The fun part of this game is that Apple never answers “Why?”

That’s OK. My goal is to keep asking – and sharing what I learn with you.


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23 Responses to Thoughts on Apple

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  1. Daniel Brueggen says:

    Keyframing works with masks etc. but keyframing exposure seems impossible.

    • Larry says:

      Daniel:

      You are correct. The only way to dynamically change between exposures is to cut the shot, color correct each side, then dissolve between then.

      Larry

  2. Not only did Apple not invent digital editing, they also didn’t invent the trackless timeline. Editors have been using trackless timelines for well over a hundred years, slugs and all. Anyone who’s cut film will instantly recognize this fact. My only qualm with FCPX has been the abandonment of the source/record paradigm pioneered by Avid and copied by Macromedia’s FCP. It’s the difference between using an upright Moviola with one viewer as opposed to a flatbed Steenbeck with two viewers. Editors would swear by both when, in fact, each had their own special uses.

    With the release of FCPX 10.2 there’s now the ability to have not one but four video scopes next to the active viewer. My question to the Apple engineers actively trying to improve FCPX would be: if this functionality is possible, why not create a preference setting that restores the traditional source/record paradigm? I’m not talking about a simple extra viewer like what currently exists, but a full-fledged duel monitor GUI with independent TC displays, tick marks to better gauge long-duration clips, and customizable buttons directly underneath. In other words, give your editors the ability to work on both a Moviola and a Steenbeck.

    *Sigh* But I guess that’s too much to ask…

  3. I’ve grown very fond of FCPX. I’d been with Apple in video since FCP 2, and while I LOATHED FCPX at the start, I decided that was more down to my reluctance to make a shift in method. Every day is a school day, and with that in mind I pushed myself along (with Larry’s help!) – Excellent now, especially with a lot of the improvements of 10.2.

    My gripe (at least, the main one)? Audio – it just doesn’t lend itself to exporting to ProTools or other audio packages, and I don’t fid EQ & dynamics in FCPX adequate to the task. I’m sure it’s me that’s missing something, but I can’t get into the detail with them. So exporting as OMF is gone, and the audio doesn’t sit in tracks for chequer boarding – I’ve made stories (is it stories?) and dragged characters’ audio into separate “tracks” for export – but it’s fairly time-consuming. It was a simple delight in FCP7. That is what I miss. I’m also too stoopid to figure out AC3 export at the end!

    But all that said – I still love it!

    • Larry says:

      David:

      I agree that audio in Final Cut is still too limited – an issue I’ve mentioned to Apple on many occasions. We shall just have to see how they decide to resolve it.

      Larry

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