Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Five Worst Complaints About Complaints About FCPX

I've been using Final Cut Pro since version 1.2, in 2000.

This week, as most people likely to read this already know, Apple killed that product and replaced it with a product with a confusingly similar name, Final Cut Pro X. Despite the name, it's built from scratch, and is completely incompatible with the old Final Cut Pro.

And it is not built with the interests and needs of professional broadcast editors in mind.

Which is fine, in a sense. Apple has clearly signalled to the marketplace that it is interested in a different market, one that is less demanding in its necessity to broadcast standards or traditional post-production workflow, easily enticed by a lower pricepoint, and much more likely to be shooting on DSLRs than high-end cameras.

Now, there could have been better ways to do that ... like, for instance, a bit of advance notice, or a transition period. Because as of today, there is no product commercially available from Apple that can fully meet the needs of most broadcast professional post-production workflows. There is no way with a company with an investment in FCP 7 (the last functional edition of the old software) to buy new licenses, even. (Other than eBay or privately, of course.)

Long story short: Apple didn't care about broadcast editors and post houses, and didn't even think about that audience before releasing this version and discontinuing the old one. Because they didn't, people got angry. And then, because it's the Internet, people got angry at them without understanding what they were getting angry about. And then I got angry with them.

Herewith, a few complaints (paraphrased from searches on the Twitter tag #fcpx - you're likely to find all of these in any sample of 100 tweets on #fcpx) I'm sick of hearing.

1. "Stop whining! FCP 7 still works! Just keep using that!"

Yes, you are correct. And I'm on an FCP 7 project now, that will go til March 2012.

But that's at least one life cycle in technology these days, and by that time there will probably be new cameras, and new codecs, unsupported by FCP 7. That are all sexy little toys that people want to use. And because FCP 7 is dead, it's unlikely that support will be forthcoming for them.

Effectively, FCP editors have been put on the plank, and told to start walking. They can jump whenever they like ... but Monday was a crystal clear announcement they will have to jump - to FCPX (which is currently completely unsuitable for their needs), to Avid Media Composer, or to Adobe Premiere.

I'm lucky - I'm also fluent in Avid, having used it professionally for 7 or so years now. I prefer Final Cut Pro for editing in a large number of cases, although Avid has clear strengths over FCP in some situations (particularly multiple users on a single machine), and I suspect if I worked at a post house I'd have a stronger pro-Avid bias.

The point is, it's not a big deal for me to work on Avid going forward. But for FCP editors who've never done anything else, and for companies who've invested in an FCP infrastructure, they've got to decide where to jump to. Ironically, the smoothest path for FCP editors right now is not FCPX, but Adobe Premiere, because of the similarities in UI and because FCP projects can be imported. (They can't be imported into FCPX, though.)

(Caveat: I've never used Adobe Premiere. It may well be time for me to learn - knowing both Avid and FCP has meant that I've been able to work in any professional environment in New Zealand, and I suspect Premiere will pick up a great deal of the FCP slack that's about to appear in the marketplace.)

2. "FCP never worked for me, but FCPX is great! Adapt or die, old dinosaur editors!"

I've always been in a funny place with Final Cut Pro. On one side, I have people who aren't experienced who are very confused by it and claim it's too hard, and on the other I have Avid acolytes who think it's a drop and drag kid's toy.

The truth, as always, is much more nuanced.

The old FCP worked great for my needs in most ways ... if you understood how it worked. Most people didn't, and inevitably I'd get called into a project that's having trouble to discover that people had combined three different codecs onto a timeline in a fourth codec that wasn't friendly with all of them, and then complain because "FCP makes you render all the time".

I'd explain how to get around that, but FCP knowledge is a rapidly decaying asset, like being able to fix a CRT television or something. Suffice it to say, FCP had a fundamentally different architecture than Avid for managing data, which made it a very powerful tool that could very easily get people in trouble.

I bring this up to point this simple fact out: just because FCP didn't work for you, doesn't mean it didn't work. Ok?

3. "You whiners! Of course Apple's going to put everything back they got rid of! You'll eat your words!"

Will they? Well, that's half the question. Now that this has all blown up spectacularly, they've belatedly starting trying to let people know that, well, of course it's coming, and everything will be fine, although the only quasi-official thing I've seen so far is this somewhat condescending and somewhat inaccurate NY Times article essentially written by FCPX's product managers. (This response is recommended, for those who care about this side of things.)

But here's the evidence against it.

a. Broadcast features were not considered relevant for inclusion in this version, nor was it considered significant to flag their absence.

b. Broadcast editors are - quite bluntly - a pain in the ass customer. They're the most demanding and the smallest part of the market place. From an economic incentive, there's very good reasons to ditch them. (Dylan Reeve visualizes this here.)

c. People have been especially up in arms about the loss of the Multicam feature. (A feature I never used, and now suspect I'm missing out! But anyway.) Apple's initial response which came to Philip Hodgetts initially indicates that "Multicam will come in a future release, when Apple decide how best to implement it within the new application and architecture." I may be misreading it, but to me, that's a startling admission - that something that was considered a key feature for lots and lots of pro users was not contemplated in the basic architecture.

d. If you want to know what people or corporations will do in the future, look at the past. (Perhaps something I should have done sooner. But anyway.) Look at Shake, which was discontinued and never replaced. Look at QuickTime, which was upgraded from 7 to X, in the process eliminating key functions which have never returned. (QT7 is still a key quiver in every FCP editor's bow for handling transcodes without tying up FCP.) The trend is clear: ditch pro features, make things easier, et cetera.

4. "It's a new product, a 1.0! Why do you expect a 1.0 to be complete, you whiner?"

A variant on the last one, I suppose, but this gets to something that really, really galls me about this product release. I haven't dropped $299 on the product yet (more on that later), but I'm told that internally it comes up as "Final Cut Pro 10.0" or something similar on the Help display. It's using the brand name that has been around for over a decade. It's as if Microsoft released a new version of Word that couldn't read old documents and couldn't print, but was really good at formatting.

Those of us who make long term decisions based around products were - in my opinion, quite reasonably - expecting that self-described 10.0, with all the interoperability and continuity of basic functionality associated with that.

Now we have a 1.0, and if there's one thing I learned from my previous life in software, it's this: you NEVER bet your business on a 1.0 piece of software if you can possibly avoid it. (To be fair, ANY .0 release is a bad idea. But at least higher up the codestream, you have reason to believe revisions can be integrated more quickly and easily into the codestream. And you don't usually unexpectedly discover your business model is about to collapse with no obvious replacement in sight from your key vendor.)

5. "You haven't even used it yet, Whiney McWhinerson! You have no write to whine about it, whiner!"

(By now, it should be clear that "whiner" grates on me like no other word when applied to people with legitimate complaints.)

That's accurate, I haven't installed it or used it. I also haven't used Windows Movie Maker, DreamWeaver, and countless other programs that are completely inapplicable to my needs as a broadcast editor.

A little known fact: in a previous life, I had an R&D role at a software networking company, that involved testing new versions of products (particularly Lotus Notes/Domino). So one thing I got really good at was understanding the difference between architecture and implementation.

Implementation is things like the FCPX GUI. I have a lot of skepticism about the decision in FCPX to change the fundamental metaphors of editing, and major qualms about certain decisions, but you'll notice I haven't uttered one word of criticism about it. Because I'm not qualified to evaluate that until I've gotten my hands dirty with it.

But there's no point at the moment in me getting my hands dirty with it. Because of the architecture.

Architecture is what that GUI and the like sits on top of. And you don't need to touch the software to understand that - you just need to know what it does. And at least as of today, there are so many things missing from that architecture, that FCPX is entirely useless to my needs. It may not be to yours - if you make DSLR videos with limited footage and no external post workflow, it could be a great step forward in speed.

So, if FCPX works for you, that's great! Take advantage of it! For you, it may well be revolutionary, instead of just revolting. But in the meantime, the most ardent and vocal (albeit by no means the largest) sector of FCP's user base have major, basic issues with it.

And if you're on Twitter, or anywhere else on the Internet, do yourself a favor: don't make yourself look like an idiot in public without understanding those.

(Oh, two bonus favorite bad complaints/syllogisms:

1. "People complained about the iPad, too! And now everyone loves it!"

Apart from the fact that I don't think the complainers were the same people using it, businesses weren't using an old version of the iPad for mission critical tasks that the new version rendered redundant.

2. "But X who sells training material for FCPX says it's great!"

Yes, by all means, if you want your unbiased information about a product from people who have skin in the game, go for it. Also, I hear Apple says FCPX is revolutionary, thus invalidating all the critics! Sigh.)

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