Apple attempting to redefine Pro with FCPX

The new version of Apple’s video editing software, Final Cut Pro X, has caused an incredible stir in professional video editing circles by removing features and changing how editing is done.

To many, Apple has abandoned Pros, dumbed down their software and created “iMovie Pro.” Much of that is hyperbole. What we do know about FCPX is that it’s a complete rewrite of Final Cut Pro.

Before I get too deep into this, it is important to point out that FCPX is in fact missing some huge features. Features that frankly do make this software unusable in many video editors workflows. Apple has acknowledged these omissions and has promised that many are on their way. But these features and support for key plugins are not there today.

FCPX sports a new technological foundation of 64-bit, OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch. What that means to most people is that FCPX is much, much faster than FCP7 and will become even faster as computers gain more cores, more ram and better GPUs (which is where the future of desktop computing is heading).

Controversially, FCPX sports a new look and feel and new features. Apple believes that older versions of FCP and competing products (Avid, Premiere, etc) are needlessly hard to use. The paradigm that FCP is built around has been around since the 1990s. That’s an eternity in software terms, and Apple isn’t a company that supports legacy technology for the sake of supporting it (see also: floppy disks, dedicated mouse and keyboard inputs, Firewire 400, etc).

I believe that Apple genuinely thinks that FCPX is a better piece of software than FCP7. It has the best technological foundation of any video editing software out there and is built for the 64-bit, multi-core, OpenCL world we are now entering. It is certainly more Pro than FCP7 in terms of technology and speed, and in many ways that’s how Apple is defining Pro:

In the world of Apple, a Pro product used to mean “designed for high-end professionals with needs far beyond those of mortal men.” Now it simply means “the high-performance model.”

The old FCP could only use a core or two of a multi-core computer and only up to 4 GBs of ram. The new FCP can utilize 12 cores at once (that’s the peak of what Apple currently sells), up to 64 GBs of ram (that’s also the peak of what Apple currently sells) and sports GPU acceleration for even faster rendering of video and effects (Apple will have computers that have more than 12 cores and can handle more than 64 GBs of ram in the near future).

Beyond that, the new FCP is supposed to be easier for people who have never done serious video editing before. Pros don’t care about this, of course. In fact, many don’t like the idea of making video editing easier and expanding the pool of people who can do quality video editing. Making a task or software easier to use both makes current users’ jobs easier but also lowers the barriers to entry.

The thing about many Pros is that they like complexity on some levels. They like the idea of being elite and doing something that very few people can do. Or, more precisely, doing something that very few people would put up with. Just look at how complex and ugly Bloomberg Terminals are to see how people and industries like using something that looks complex and hard to comprehend by outsiders. Wall Street veterans have resisted a easier-to-user, easier-to-learn, more attractive Bloomberg Terminal for years.

Even Tweetdeck has somewhat of this allure for social media editors. When you’re using Tweetdeck Desktop, it sure looks like you’re working on something important. Never underestimate the psychology of Pros using technology or software that makes their work look complicated and hard to grasp.

FCP7 is not a hard piece of software to use per se, but it is complex, with much of its power is hidden. It also has issues like clips becoming out of sync that frustrate people to no end (but that Pros know how to get around).

Many Pros wanted the new FCP to just be FCP7 with a new technological foundation. They wanted more speed, not a new editing paradigm. They don’t care about making software easier to use for more people; in fact, that actively hurts their ability to stand out.

But if you’re going to rewrite a piece of software from the ground up, you would at least consider making changes to how it functions, right? It’s the perfect time to rethink how people do video editing and how it could be made easier.

Here’s the big key that almost everyone is missing: FCPX is unique; it has a look, feel and editing paradigm that no one else has. A lot of Pros are talking of making the switch to Premiere, and the thing is, it’s not that hard to make that switch since the two programs are pretty similar. Avid isn’t that much different either. But now Apple has an editing program that is both easier to use and distinct from everyone else.

Apple is hoping to bring powerful video editing to more people. FCPX is $299 ($399 with the Compressor and Motion add-ons), whereas FCP7 was $999. Apple clearly wants more users: students, hobbyists, independent documentary makers, prosumers journalists, new media websites, bloggers and, yes, people upgrading from consumer video editing software.

Looking at the new FCP, it seems fairly clear to me that Apple wants FCPX to be a solid foundation that works for most people’s video editing needs. If you need more power or more features, Apple is pointing you in the direction of third-party plugins. It’s very clear from Apple’s literature about FCPX that third-party plugins are meant to bridge many of the gaps missing from FCPX.

The future of video editing is all digital. Want tape support? That’s fine, just get it from a third-party plugin. Need some old format to output your files to another program? Time for a third-party plugin.

Yes these plugins cost money. But a true Pro is already used to paying $999 for FCP7 or more than $2,000 for Avid. The reason that FCPX is $299 is that Apple wants a bigger audience. If you need more power and you have more money to spend, Apple has built a third-party plugin architecture to fill the holes.

What this really comes down to is redefining Pro. For Apple it means faster, more powerful, more extensible. FCPX is no iMovie Pro. Anyone who has used iMovie knows that it is fine for quick, short editing of all-digital content, but it doesn’t have a lot of features, isn’t extensible and doesn’t have a rendering engine as powerful as FCPX.

Jeremy has mentioned that Lehigh is looking into FCPX for the journalism department. It looks like a capable platform for digital storytelling, and it’s easier to use, which means that more students will grasp the concepts. My work (an international non-profit) is looking into FCPX as well. All the work we do is digital from what we shoot, to how we edit to where we show our work. Distributing our work online will be the main way we use video moving forward.

The meaning of Pro is changing. More and more video is being produced for and consumed online. Internet video doesn’t need legacy file support and features. FCPX is a video editing program aimed at these producers and consumers.

Those saying that FCPX cannot be used by Pros are people who only believe that Pro video means film, broadcast or advertising. Online journalism? Not Pro. Digital documentary? Not Pro. Work for a non-profit organization? Not Pro.

But for those who define Pro by which industries are Pro, FCPX is not Pro. It currently cannot be used in most film or broadcast workflows. It’s missing too many features and third-party plugins. For those users, they’ll have to await for the promised updates that will restore many of the biggest missing features: multicam, XML, RED camera support, etc. And if those updates are not satisfactory, those users will have to adopt a new video editing program, unless their workflows suddenly stop requiring many of these legacy formats.

Whether or not this redefining or what Pro video editing is will work remains to be seen. Certainly if Apple loses all the broadcast, film and advertising users it currently has, FCPX will not be a success. But if FCPX maintains many of those users, while also becoming the go-to video editor for online journalism, bloggers, websites, students, indie documentaries, prosumers, etc, it will be a big hit.