Apple pro ‘trucks’: workflow-tough?

Monday, January 16th, 2012

There’s a fair amount of consensus among the online sources I read that Apple is at least neglecting, if not outright abandoning the pro marketplace, and more specifically the world of television professionals. Today brought an Ars article entitled Why the video pros are moving away from Apple. I read reports of large production houses that used dozens of Apple’s Final Cut edit systems who are reluctantly switching to Avid—the only other viable option, they say.

I also detect a fairly healthy backbeat—voices saying that programs like Final Cut Pro X are the future, tape is the past, and that the universe of people who need truly pro-level tools to create graphics, animation, and to edit, finish, and deliver broadcast and film content is, really, get over yourselves, a niche market.

I’m not so sure. If you define “niche” in terms of raw sales numbers, you may be missing the outsized influence that edit and graphics rooms filled with Macs around the world have on the creative community.

Because those workplaces exist, there are students in schools everywhere learning Final Cut, Motion (and 3d software like Maya and Cinema 4D, and 2d essentials like Adobe’s After Effects, Photoshop, and Illustrator). They work (for the most part) on Macs. They come through a training regimen ready to walk into edit suites and design houses and create material that actually works on “real” projects.

Video pros like to use the word “workflow” a lot, and the reason for that is simple. The stuff they make is part of a whole—the opens and graphics of a larger program, or a package that shows up within that program, or a program that fits within a stream of programming throughout a day, or a commercial or interstitial that has to bridge the gaps between programs. When you’re part of a team, you’re handed material, you work with that material, and you hand it on in a way that meets certain standards and fits in the puzzle in a predictable way.

That’s being a pro. That’s being part of a team. In television-land, you may be part of a closely-knit unit of a dozen or fewer. On a film, you may be one of hundreds. The amount of raw material you work with and have to sort through is staggering. Metadata is your friend. Doing it right—frame rates, codecs, interlace, gamma—is part of the job.

Workflow is part of the job. It’s not just a “nice to have” option.

Starting a few years back, Apple was able to deliver hardware and software that made it easier to not just create content, but to do it in a way that fit into professional workflows in such a way that it made creative professionals’ lives easier.

It wasn’t just that you could make movies or television bits. You could, with these tools, make “real” stuff. Stuff that met standards. Stuff that could air without jittering or blowing out the color on your TV.

It was interesting to me that in a world increasingly filled with iDevices, Steve Jobs spun out the now well-known analogy that iPads would be more like cars with automatic transmissions, but, he said, we’ll always need trucks for the heavy lifting of content creation.

With the release of Final Cut Pro X, some in the creative community saw a slick sports car that Apple designed that, sadly, was not street-legal. Very cool, very shiny, but pros often found no way to use it to do the heavy lifting of their modern workflows.

We still need fresh new trucks, with tricked-out power and industry-leading features. At CES this month, manufacturers showed off 4K camcorders…a higher-than-high definition that makes my hard drives wobble at the knees just to contemplate.

We’ll all be editing on iPads someday? Well, if the largest iPad would only hold, say, 10 seconds of 4K video, that might be a challenge.

To do a professional job of content creation, those fresh new trucks, the 2012 models, will need:

  • The fastest processors and maximum RAM, of course.
  • Increasingly, the GPUs—graphics processing subsystems—need to be hugely powerful, upgradable, combinable—they’re the core of the powerplant of future content creation, if I haven’t bent a metaphor too much there. New software, from Apple and elsewhere, will rely on them more and more with each rev. You may need not one but several, working cooperatively, in one box.
  • Huge flexibility in i/o options. This includes bringing things in and getting them out in almost every conceivable way, including to videotape when appropriate. Sure, Thunderbolt is a good start in that direction.
  • And software, including operating system software, that works hard to keep all the bits circulating at max speed with minimum complications.

Now the nice thing, the win-win, about Apple putting energy into creating systems like these, and the key to why this is not just a niche market question, is that development success here leads to staggering improvements in all the behind the scenes slickness that makes iOS so powerful in devices. There’s no doubt that all the work spent in making type, animation, transitions, and movement work on professional content, software, and systems paid off in huge benefits when Apple wanted to bring modern design slickness, speed, and elegance to things you hold in your hand.

They have to keep that innovation in every part of the pipeline. Mac OS X has to remain, at its core, a pro-level, configurable operating system. It’s gotta run on high end boxes. And those boxes have to run a complete suite of pro-level creative software that not only serves those who must work within very particular and demanding workflows, but establishes a great test bed for the next innovations for iOS and our increasingly device-filled world.

Seems to me Apple abandons this workflow at their peril.