Why nothing Apple does should surprise me

I do not—and have never—used Final Cut Pro. Or really any version of Final Cut. I remember one day I was sort of bumming around, looking at software, and I wondered briefly if the slimmed-down version would be worth it before I woke up to reality and realized that the few times in my life that I needed to edit video, I hated it. So that was that.

But I was rather shocked when I heard about Apple’s release of Final Cut Pro X that didn’t even offer backwards compatibility with the previous versions of Final Cut Pro. “What the hell was Apple thinking?” I asked myself, perplexed. Judging by the backlash John Gruber documented recently, others are equally perplexed (and the ones who relied on Final Cut Pro are angry).

My shock wore off pretty quickly, though, because this is quintessential Apple; honestly, I’m a little embarrassed that I was surprised in the first place.

For years Apple has been working on applying the following philosophy to their entire product line:

It is preferable to sell a moderately priced but feature-limited product to a huge number of people than to sell a high-priced, feature-rich product to a small number of people.

Apple did not avoid its near-death experience in the 90’s by catering to an exclusive, tech-savvy group. They escaped death by selling the bubbly, fruit-colored iMac to people like my grandmother because Apple realized that although wooing over the tech-savvy power users can sometimes be rewarding, everybody has a grandmother.

Certainly, they have not applied this philosophy perfectly over time (and there are a bunch of other factors affecting their decisions), but more and more in the recent past they have been aggressively pursuing it for every one of their products. The iPod, iWork, iLife, iOS, the iTunes store, and most recently Mac OS X itself along with the majority of their other software offerings: all of these have been moving toward increasing mass appeal at the expense of the fringe of power-users.

Does this suck for the power-users? Undoubtedly. Apple always iterates and offers better and better products, but unfortunately the writing is on the wall: power-users would be nice to have, but they are not the customer that Apple cares most about.

Apple cares most about the people who would never in a million years have considered buying Final Cut before. Many posts I’ve read have mentioned that Final Cut feels a lot more like iMovie, and that’s no accident. iMovie is Final Cut’s gateway drug, and if Apple is right (which is a likely bet, given their past performance), they are going to make a quiet killing that far exceeds their previous Final Cut profits even if they lose massive amounts of market share within professional video editing studios.

And they might lose less market share than some doomsayers are predicting. I know nothing about the competing products, but I would not be surprised if Apple hit most of the core needs and manages to retain a decent segment of the professional market despite the negative fallout the initial release is causing. After all, the new product costs a third as much as the old one (or, presumably, its competitors). There will certainly be people who abandon the product, but because Apple is no longer trying internally to compete with those products and companies, Apple will not particularly care.

Final Cut Pro 7 sounds like it was a great professional video editor, but it was only one of multiple choices, which is an unacceptable position for Apple. Apple does not want to compete with other companies; they want to define their own rules, move into unexpected markets, and have other companies vainly try to copy them.

Which is why I should not be surprised by anything that Apple does. Taking their software in a new direction that pisses off the majority of their userbase? Only surprising if you forget that Apple has succeeded by consistently failing to think their target userbase is the same as outsiders think.

As for my personal reaction? Not being a user (or potential user), I am completely unaffected by Final Cut Pro X in the immediate future. However, while I can’t help but admire Apple’s brilliant and ruthless focus on moving into a broader consumer market than their competitors have previously dared to dream of, I am uncomfortable with their increasing trend of ignoring the needs of their power-users who are, in many cases, the most invested in any given platform or product.

But this is totally predictable, because I am typically affiliated with the power-users and every time that Apple says, “We are going to do this thing which will make power-users unhappy but will make a whole lot of other people more willing to give us money” it means that I have lost a little more power and the software and hardware has become, in a way, a little less mine.

(Honestly, I think this is why so much of the bleeding-edge tech blogging world is negative about Apple so much of the time: Apple is relying less and less on them and their ilk for designing products, and a tech pundit without any influence on the tech they are opining about is an alienated, angry pundit.)

Apple is unlikely to change their minds about this philosophy in the foreseeable future. It is making them billions of dollars and leaving them largely uncontested in the markets that they choose to focus on. Since power-users are the fringe for all of those markets (where they are part of the market at all), things are not going to get better for us in the short term.

Thanks to my personal bias, this seems bad to me; power-users and early adopters’ loyalty to a product or platform should not be disregarded out of hand. But for the millions of people for whom software and hardware are becoming less and less to be feared and more and more enjoyable and empowering (the way I have been enjoying and empowered by computers for years), the Apple-driven future is bright.

6 responses to “Why nothing Apple does should surprise me”

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  1. Murray says:

    Great observation. Speaking as a fellow power user and one who was, until this release, thinking of purchasing Final Cut, I am very disappointed in Apple’s decision. I am, for similar reasons, not planning to upgrade to Lion when it is released.

  2. PXLated says:

    Relax, the power users didn’t loose a thing, they can still work with what they have and been happy with. Apple sees a new way to do things and has the balls to pursue it. Yes, on first release, it may not have “every” bell and whistle the pros want but am betting it will. But, people don’t like change (even power users) and bitch to high heaven at even the small things.
    Yes, at the price point more prosumers can afford it but that doesn’t mean Apple is abandoning the pros.

  3. pjs_boston says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how people get up in arms about nothing.

    First, FCP X is a version 1.0 release. Apple has stated that they will be issuing updates at six month intervals. Give them a little time to bring the new architecture up to speed.

    In the meantime, FCP 7 still works! In fact, you can have both applications installed on the same system! So, use FCP 7 for your mission critical stuff and start teaching yourself how to use FCP X on less important new projects. What a novel idea!

    Get a life folks!

  4. Lachlan says:

    Apple has shown complete disregard for their pro user base.

    Why release anything at all when it’s such an insult? FCP 7 is hopelessly out of date – and Final Cut X is not even at feature parity. They had 2 years for a rewrite and this is all they could do?

    Sure we still have 7, but it’s unsupported now and at some point an OS update will do it in. So do we keep an old machine lying around for FCP7 projects, or do we buy Avid or Adobe offerings which incidentally, offer better support for our previous projects than Apple does.

    Oh yes, X has new features – like Export to Facebook and Import iMovie project – in “Pro” software?! Yet I can’t preview on a broadcast monitor because somehow that feature was left out – it’s beyond comprehension the vacuum the programmers at Apple exist in … They didn’t just drop the ball, they threw it away … FCP X still doesn’t handle footage natively – it just transcodes it in the background so it can take up all your hard drive space.

    What a joke. Yes, at the FCP user meet in April Editor’s jaws hit the ground – and not in a good way. No wonder the BBC moved 2000 seats to Avid – they saw the writing on the wall. Most other big production houses will do the same. Hey, but at least little Johnny can upload to YouTube.

    It will be a long time before any major movie is produced in FCP X – what a debacle.

  5. Ian Beck says:

    For those interested in this topic, here’s another great opinion piece about Final Cut Pro X that has the historical perspective that I lack (not being a user, myself):

    Macworld: How Apple re-cut Final Cut Pro for the better

  6. PXLated says:

    Ian – That link does put it in perspective – The new “pro/semiPro” user has greatly expanded and this will fit better. It’s an expansion similar to pro-journalist (MSM) and all the alternatives (blogs, etc). The pros are discombobulated but the industry expands with new, easier to use tools and the pros need to adjust – it’s just more difficult for them as they’re stuck with “their” system and methods.

    Another example of change causing disruption and grumbling at first was the switch to OSX. It took a couple years but in the mean time the power users grumbled about the missing control panels, extensions, etc – you know, all those things that made OS9 unstable. The power user pros will get over it just like they have with the all new, the all wonderful OSX and everything it spawned.

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