The case for a new Apple professional application

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

If Apple were to launch a new professional application to showcase the power and flexibility of the new Mac Pro, what would it be like?

Professional sofware is part of Apple's corporate definition. This definition appears at the end of every Apple press release. At the moment the definition includes the following:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software…

Apple say that they're making a new version of Final Cut tuned to the 4K possibilities afforded by the new MacPro. Some new MacPro features are already in October's MacBook Pros. They have fast 1TB SSDs (1.1GByte/second read and write) and Thunderbolt 2 (and probably HDMI 2 with a firmware upgrade).

Final Cut Pro is a valuable application that works very wall on all new Macs (especially if you have at least 16GB of RAM). The only feature Final Cut might have that would show off something that only the Mac Pro could do is the ability to have seven 4K displays attached at once. Final Cut Pro X 10.0 only uses up to two displays without much flexibility. A Mac Pro-supporting 10.1 update would therefore include for flexible window and display options.

So how can Apple demonstrate a post production workflow that specifically requires the extra power in the GPUs and CPUs of the new Mac Pro? 

How about a colour grading application?

When Apple acquired Silicon Color in 2006, their Final Touch HD grading application cost $5,000. A year later they released Apple Color (a only slightly modified version of Final Touch HD) as part of the Final Cut Studio bundle. This huge effective price cut immediately lowered a big barrier to entry for better quality colour in post production.

The catch was Apple Color never felt like an Apple application - its user interface remained obscure to new users, and Apple didn't invest any time or money into making an editor-friendly version of Color. One of the aims of the 2011 Final Cut Pro X reset was to open up the world of post production to more creative people. There was no place for Apple Color in 2011. It was all Apple could do to build a workable version of Final Cut from scratch on top of the new post-QuickTime OS X frameworks.

An upside of the fall of Color as a grading application is the rise of DaVinci Resolve from Blackmagic Design. They took Apple's 'very low pricing to sell Mac hardware' policy and applied it to their business model. Resolve sells their control surfaces, cameras, and video I/O devices - promoted by the very low or even free prices for Resolve. 

In practice, there's no need for Apple to revive Color, DaVinci Resolve fills that gap nicely.

A high-end compositing application would be a good candidate to promote the new Mac Pro. Nuke by The Foundry for example. Nuke eats up CPU and GPU cycles, loves multiple screens and benefits from fast IO and storage. That sounds like the new Mac Pro.

Nuke pricing starts at £2,500 ($4,100). The newest version of Nuke, version 8, is being launched next week.

Will Apple acquire The Foundry? Even if they wanted to, the combination might not be a good mix. It didn't seem to work out well when they acquired Nothing Real.

Apple bought Nothing Real in 2002 for their technology, applications and post industry links. In the following years Final Cut users benefitted from Nothing Real's image stabilisation and optical flow retiming technology. Shake, the Nothing Real high-end compositing app, was one of Weta's main tools for the post production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In 2005 Apple charged $3,000 for Shake 4 (whereas Shake 2.1 cost $9,900 in 2000). They eventually cut the price of version 4.1 to $500. Sadly it seems that Apple didn't want to maintain the support structure required by effects houses who want quick developer responses in return for expensive annual maintenance licenses.

Apple Insider, June 2006:

The latest release of Apple Computer's Shake compositing software may be the last of its breed, as the company reportedly plans to shift gears and focus on developing the next-generation of the application around a different codebase.

Apple made the revelation alongside the release of Shake 4.1 this week, telling customers that it "will no longer be selling maintenance for Shake" as "no further updates" to the application are planned.

Instead, Apple said it has begun work on the next generation of the software, which reports target for a release in 2008.

In the event, Apple didn't release Smoke X in 2008, they didn't update it for years, discontinuing it in 2009. Commentators said 

Will Apple add Shake-like 3D and node-based editing to Final Cut Pro? Perhaps - Autodesk are going the other way: adding and editorial timeline to the Smoke 3D and node-based compositor.

Many editors have called for more advanced grading, effects and compositing tools in Final Cut Pro. Some would like all the features of Apple Color, Motion, Shake, Logic, Soundtrack Pro and a Blu-Ray version of DVD Studio Pro available in a single Final Cut timeline.

It is unlikely that Apple will go in this direction. Even though hidden in every copy of Final Cut is a full version of Motion, only a small part of the Motion UI is accessible in Final Cut Pro X.

Plugin makers use the retail version of Apple Motion to make effects, transitions, titles and generators for Final Cut editors. When Apple combined Motion filters and behaviours into the plugins bundled with Final Cut, they seemed to make a point of not making every filter and behaviour control available to editors. Apple followed Einstein's maxim when developing plugins: "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." Although node-based post production can work well in applications such as Smoke, DaVinci Resolve and After Effects, I think Apple consider the steepness of the learning curve for all editors not worth the benefits to compositors and motion graphics designers and editors who think like them.

Tomorrow's customer stories drive today's new features

If Apple want to use the Mac Pro and associated software as proof that iMacs and MacBook Pros are part of a range of computers than can support highly complex and demanding projects at the high end, they'll need some inspirational case studies. Even if your company memo doesn't need to be edited a computer with mulitple CPU cores and GPUs, some consumers like to buy from a company that makes the technology used to make the biggest movies in history.

That means that although Apple probably won't have a Mac Pro launch event, they'll want Mac Pro stories out that Apple supporters can quote in a single line. In 2002, fans were able to say "Apple's Shake app was used to make Lord of the Rings." Despite the fact that the hardware Weta probably used was PCs running Linux, the Shake aquisition made some Final Cut users happy. HP have probably benefitted from courting post production facilities.

The good news for Apple is that there are many blockbuster movies gearing up for release in 2015, so now is a good time for Mac Pros to get more involved in film post production. In practice that means that the radical nature of the Mac Pro must be seen to be an advantage when it comes to producing 4K, high frame rate, mostly computer animated tentpole feature films.

If Apple wants these kind of customer stories, they'll need to have the tools that fit. For Final Cut Pro that means improved versioning, media management and media sharing. When Apple do collaborative editing they will want to move far past what Avid do today - or at least create hooks so that third parties can deliver new kinds of solutions.

As regards Motion, although the 5.0.X series has slowly impoved as a plug-in development tool over the last 29 months, it hasn't had many motion graphics feature improvements. Does its very low price and its marketing as a Final Cut add-on denote that Apple has ceded the motion graphics app battle to After Effects?

This points to the possibility that a Apple will launch a new combination professional application with the new Mac Pro and Final Cut Pro X 10.1. To fit the bill, it would be used to

  • Create plugins for Final Cut Pro, iMovie and perhaps Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere Pro, Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve and Autodesk Smoke (running on OS X only)
  • Design motion graphics that can be generated in rendered in real time and controlled using external devices and applications (for use on-set and artistic performances for example)
  • Combine complex 3D content with footage and other media in a node-based procedural editing system - with live links to Resolve or Smoke node trees.

In practice this would be Motion X, Quartz Composer X and Shake X combined in a single application. 

I'm looking forward to seeing 'Apple ShakeComposerMotion X' in December - it'll change the world of post production forever!

 

 

 

I don't expect Apple to launch Apple ShakeComposerMotion X - it is a fantasy application idea that shows there is a lot of space for modern professional applications by Apple to fill.