Apple is abandoning pros. Who will replace Apple?

System 6I have been using Apple computers since about 1991 (when I was 10), when I bought a used Mac Plus from my neighbor, an architect. I have owned a steady line of Macs since then, even though my parents and (later) employers often insisted on using Windows machines. I am highly competent in Windows 95 through XP, but have always been dissatisfied with its lack of core stability and Microsoft’s apparent lack of concern for the end user experience.

I’m not alone in the media world. Though Windows and Linux machines are often found on many media desks, Apple computer has been the primary tool of choice for photographers, designers, artists, editors and musicians since at least the mid-1990s (if not much earlier).

Apple’s move towards the consumer and prosumer markets

In the last three years, however, media professionals have become increasingly dissatisfied with Apple Computer. Some of the grievances include:

  • Lack of updates to the Mac Pro line
  • “Nerfing” the Macbook Pro line, making it more like Macbooks (weak graphics cards, fewer professional expansion options, increased difficulty in adding RAM and hard disks)
  • Late-2012 iMacs are more difficult to upgrade than nearly any previous Macintosh computer
  • Final Cut Pro X ($299) replaced Final Cut Studio ($1299) by downgrading its functionality, making it more affordable and more accessible to prosumer and enthusiast users, unusable by Hollywood and many high-end media professionals
  • USB 3.0 was adopted very late; 3rd-party USB 3.0 devices (PCI cards, USB 3.0 hubs) are mostly unsupported in Mac OS X as of today
  • With OS 10.7 and 10.8, OS X is on a path to become more like iOS

Apple is gradually moving away from the niche pro market (a few million users) to a the mainstream market (hundreds of millions, potentially a few billion users). Following the booming success of the iPod and iPhone, more and more casual users are switching to Mac and Apple wants to accommodate them.

From a business standpoint, Apple is under the legal obligation to maximize profits for its shareholders. As I write this, Apple is the most profitable company in the world, but competition from Google, Samsung and other high-tech companies is fierce and intensifying. If Apple wants to make as much money as possible, they seem to have decided that they can’t afford to invest in the relatively-miniscule, high-maintenence world of professionals. True, Apple’s marketing team hasn’t entirely abandoned professionals yet, but it’s clear that the development end is weaning us off of the Mac.

Fair enough, but where do we go now? Who will rise up to replace Apple?

Editing Software

Let’s look at the current market in terms of software. Since I’m a video/film professional, I’ll focus on what I can say from personal experience: editing software.

Final Cut Pro X

What does the X stand for? I argue that is means “express”. During the Final Cut Studio days, Apple offered Final Cut Pro for high-end users (priced around $1200), and Final Cut Express for prosumer users (priced around $299). Final Cut Express had 85% of the features that Final Cut Pro had, but purposefully withheld the features that professional video editors need. Final Cut Pro X seems to fit the exact model as Final Cut Express, except that it doesn’t seem to be purposefully designed to withhold necessary features – that just sort of happened as a side result of bad development.

Many of the professional features that were missing in the initial release of Final Cut Pro X have slowly been added back in, including multicam support, dual viewers, XML support, and a host of small but crucial nuts and bolts. The file management system is my biggest concern with Final Cut Pro X, and continues to be centered around an event-based structure that doesn’t easily accommodate external drives (network drives, RAID arrays, etc…) nor collaboration between directors and editors (who can simply send a 2 MB project file via email and reconnect external media on either end). Workarounds have been developed, some of which include awkward solutions like mounting and unmounting disk images, but the core file system seems easily corruptible, prone to crashes when databases become large, and generally unfit for someone who regularly manages hundreds of hours of media.

Adobe Premiere

The spiritual successor to Final Cut Pro 7 (the last truly professional version of the software), Adobe Premiere is pretty good. It has most of the features that made Final Cut Pro 7 great, plus it adds a host of cutting-edge features that accommodate the wide variety of sources that footage comes from (it allows native h.264 and R3D editing, for example). It has been adopted by many editors who make short-form projects, use DSLR footage heavily, or who are shooting on RED cameras.

Premiere is not catching on quickly in Hollywood, however, and many post-production pipelines are based around more high-end tools (like Smoke or Avid Media Composer) or are still using Final Cut Pro 7.

Avid Media Composer

Avid MC has historically been a relatively expensive option, but its stability and (expensive) hardware integration have made it widely appealing to film professionals for nearly two decades. Avid just brought down the price of Media Composer 7 (shipping summer 2012) to a much more competitive $1,000.

Lightworks

A Hollywood-tested NLE app dating back to 1989, Lightworks has an interface based on the Steenbeck flatbed editing controller that was widely used in the film industry before the advent of digital cinema. It has recently become open-source software, and EditShare has plans to support it as a cross-platform editing app that is highly competitive with Avid. It’s also free, with extremely inexpensive licensing options available ($60/year) to use it in concert with professional codecs. The app is very forward-thinking, and features the kinds of redesign tactics that professional, full-time editors are able to come up with (in contrast to the uninformed, backward-thinking iMovie-based faux-innovation that resulted in Final Cut Pro X).

Lightworks has been available in its current form since May 2012 (for Windows only). A Linux Beta is available now, and the Mac version is currently in a demo-only pre-Alpha stage (it was shown at NAB 2013 a few weeks ago). EditShare says that we may see a Mac OS X public Beta by this Summer, with an official release candidate in early Fall 2013.

Hardware

In general, Apple is leaving editors and visual effects designers fewer and fewer reasons to stay with Apple hardware. Let’s look at the current offerings, compared to the industry standard.

Graphics/GPU

Currently, fast GPUs with 3GB buffers are the standard for video cards in the professional world. The best Mac Pro Apple currently sells (as of this writing) has a 1GB ATI Radeon 5770 that benchmarks to roughly 1/4 of the speed of the current industry standard cards. I am currently using an 8-core Mac Pro with that card installed, and it performs very poorly in After Effects CS6 and other current GPU-intensive apps. It’s fine for web-browsing and editing DV video, but I need more than that.

The highest-end iMac shipping today has the option for a substantially-faster NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680MX, but it’s only 2GB and sits near the 60th percentile of current graphics card offerings in terms of speed.

Adobe After Effects CS6 introduced some beautiful ray-traced 3D rendering effects that are only available for high-end graphics card users. None of Apple’s graphics card options support this significant aspect of After Effects. (Those who have attempted to use them with Apple hardware know that it’s possible, but can take anywhere between 50 – 200x as long to render as on an optimized GPU, meaning that it might take 48 hours to render a simple 4-second shot).

We need the option for faster graphics cards, Apple. We needed it in 2008. That’s why editors are building Windows machines and leaving you.

Processor/CPU

The current Mac Pro is at least two generations behind the industry with its Intel Xeon processor. Intel i5 and i7 processors have been available in MacBooks and iMacs since about 2008, but Mac Pros have stayed relatively stagnant since then, with only slight speed bumps to the processor clock speed and number of cores available.

Connectivity

The Mac Pro’s internal PCI-E 2.0 card slots can run some hardware designed for the newer PCI-E 3.0 specs, but they appear to still run on PCI-E 2.0 speeds.

The Mac Pro currently has USB 2.0 support, with extremely limited, hack-worthy USB 3.0 options available in limited circumstances. USB 3.0 has been the industry standard since roughly 2009 (arguably, since 2008). It was added to the laptops and iMacs and Mac Minis in 2012.

6 Gbit/s eSata has been an industry standard since about 2008, and Apple still refuses to incorporate it.

Many of these connectivity delinquencies seem to be addressed by Apple’s emphasis on Thunderbolt connectivity. Thunderbolt is an exciting new technology that most new Macs have. Apple wants all of us to route all devices (mouse, monitor, RAID arrays, portable external hard drives) through Thunderbolt, thereby clogging the bus and creating bottlenecks throughout the system. I edited Justin Bieber’s 3D theatrical-release music video for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” using Thunderbolt components and we were plagued by bus speed problems. Apple doesn’t seem to realize that professionals often need to hook up several monitors to a few graphics cards, pulling data from several fast external drives, and even though Thunderbolt is the theoretical Superman of connectivity, it fails in practical tests. It’s a great option if it’s one of several options – we need eSata and USB 3.0 on all computers. Thunderbolt may catch on some day, but in the meantime we need to get work done.

Optical Drives

I know that the future is cloud-based media, or streaming media, or even just disk-based media, but I have clients right now who are dealing in optical drives. Clients need DVDs authored, they need Blu-ray discs authored. They deliver media on optical media. In theory, it’s nice to think that we someday won’t need disks anymore, but we’re still years away from that.

Apple still doesn’t ship any Blu-ray drives, and likely never will. Most Apple computers now ship without any optical drive at all (though a slow Apple USB 2.0 DVD drive is available for roughly twice the industry standard cost). If I install a LaCie internal Blu-ray drive in my Mac Pro, I need third-party drivers and software to do anything with it. Apple just refuses to acknowledge that people still deal in optical media and likely will continue to do so for years down the line.

I know that a hip college kid in 2013 who buys a MacBook Pro because it’s cooler to her than a normal MacBook isn’t too worried about the optical drive. The number of people in the world who still need to create using optical media is relatively small – and Apple is showing across the board that it doesn’t care about those people.

Where do we go?

Parting with my Mac Plus

Parting with my Mac Plus in 2004 (slightly staged moment)

These are first-world problems.

That said, what the heck are we supposed to do? Media professionals kept Apple alive for decades when the world was almost exclusively on Windows. Now, we’re being abandoned. We’re not being chased by insurgents with automatic weapons, but it still is a problem.

Linux is really cool (in theory), but it’s enormously buggy and unstable. Windows is more stable than Linux, but… agh. No.

So what do we do? Where do we go?

Occupy Cupertino, anyone?Macintosh System 6

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2 Comments

  1. Dana Rose April 26, 2013 at 4:44 am #

    Part of Final Cut Pro X’s new performance increase comes from background processing. While you’re pondering your next edit, FCPX will use those down cycles to execute a number of different tasks including transcoding, content auto-analysis for stabilize shaky footage, or removing background noise from audio. Final Cut Pro X even includes a Background Task window, which shows you exactly what FCPX is doing and even offers some manual controls like pausing or canceling a background process.

    • Garrett April 26, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

      I agree with you: a huge plus to FCP X is under the hood. It’s definitely next-generation 64-bit software. However, I think it’s crippled enough by prosumer media management that it’s a bit like putting an automatic transmission on an F1 car. It may be the top of the line, but without a manual gearshift it’s not going to be as competitive on the track as it could be.