It isn't like Apple to stumble. The company's recent history is filled with one hit after the next, from the trusty iPod to the pioneering iPhone. Hell, even the company's "gambles" such as the MacBook Air or iPad have landed on solid ground. Final Cut Pro X, similarly, should have been a sure thing. It's as much the widely used tool to the professional video editing world as Photoshop is to graphic designers, or Excel is to, uh, whoever is still making spreadsheets out there.
So what happened, and why does Apple now appear to be not stumbling, but tumbling down a steep, muddy, prickly slope in the wake of the software's release? Read on to to find out why Final Cut Pro X is the program — nay, the app — that launched a thousand complaints.
How We Got Here
Apple's prior release of its professional-grade video editing software, which the company purchased from now-Adobe-owned Macromedia, was Final Cut Pro 7 in 2009. It was packaged as part of Apple's $1,000 Final Cut Studio — which, like Microsoft's Office, bundles a bunch of productivity software together, but for video editing — and it enjoyed a dominant position with 50 percent of the "non-linear video editing" market. In other words, one in two professionals likely used it.
You would expect Final Cut Pro X, then, to continue where FCP 7 left off and try to capture even more of the market, right? After all, Apple already has a casual editing program for you and me — that's iMovie. There's even a consumer version of Pro in Final Cut Express. We're covered.
It was no secret that Apple was planning to completely overhaul FCP X's interface. That in itself wasn't cause for concern. The oh-so-popular Final Cut Studio that preceded it was released with "hundreds of new features." Apple had enough cred with the pros to get them excited about change. The worries really started back early last year, when Apple announced that it would be gearing FCP X toward the "prosumer" market, that murky space that lies between consumer and professional (among other things).
Another Apple "Revolution"
If you ask Apple, the company would say that Final Cut Pro X is a "revolution in creative editing." If you ask the 955 reviewers and raters on iTunes (as of this writing, anyway — the number regularly ticks up), they would collectively reply, "Two and a half stars," which bestows upon FCP the dubious honor of being the lowest rated Apple software hosted by the company's digital store.
The battle lines have thus been drawn. On one side, there's professional video editors who say that Final Cut Pro X is unusable. On the other, there are those who say that people are overreacting, that change is hard, and that folks just haven't had enough time to adjust to the new program, which is a radical departure in both design and function.
Chief among the voices supporting Apple is New York Times tech blogger David Pogue. His piece "Apple's Final Cut Is Dead. Long Live Final Cut." opens rather glowingly, establishing the pedigree FCP enjoys:
Apple's Final Cut Pro is the leading video-editing program. It's a $1,000 professional app. It was used to make "The Social Network," "True Grit," "Eat Pray Love" and thousands of student movies, independent films and TV shows.
Impressive credentials to be sure, but there's a sad caveat: The Social Network and True Grit would not have been possible in reasonable terms using FCP X. Pogue goes on to expand upon the virtues of the changes to the FCP formula, such as the fact that it "renders in the background, so you can keep right on editing," and complicated compositions are easily within the grasp of the general user.
Pogue's post received so much feedback and complaint from professional editors that it spurned him to write a detailed a follow-up.
(Pogue's follow-up, it should be said, is just about the bravest thing a blogger can do when faced with criticism: he clearly lays out the facts and complaints, addresses each one, and lays himself bare for others to either agree or disagree with.)
Well-reasoned condemnations of FCP X come from anywhere and anywhere, but usually from pro editors such as Walter Biscardi, who enumerates the problems with the program, summing it up as "completely self-contained, one editor, one machine," adding, "Steve Jobs was wrong. This is not 'awesome.' Not even close."
Another professional in the field, Richard Harrington, takes on Pogue's defense directly, responding to every point Pogue makes, in fact, in a rather long reply. Reading both Harrington and Biscardi will give you a clear view of the finer points, but the conclusion that's ultimately drawn is this: Final Cut Pro 7 was a program. Final Cut Pro X is an app.
No high-profile editor has weighed in on the changes just yet, and one wonders if the general opinion will swing toward the positive in the future or stay where it is.
What Happens Now
What does it mean to be a program? What's the difference between that and an app? In literal terms, the two are interchangeable. In modern semantics, we can separate the two, thanks to the computer world's increasingly intricate programs, and the mobile space's more instantly accessible, usability-minded apps.
Final Cut Pro X is an app. It's Apple's first big download-only retail offering that's not made for mobile. Lion, Apple's imminent upgrade to OS X, will similarly be download-only in what's a shift in policy for the company. So, what's an app?
An Apple app, in this case, is, as Walter Biscardi put it, "self-contained." Final Cut Pro X doesn't talk to other programs. It doesn't allow you robust options for exporting data out like its predecessor did — hell, FCP X can't even load projects from its predecessor. There's no backwards compatibility here. It's a dumb, easy-to-use, no-muss experience. It's not a professional program.
That 50 percent Apple has served up until this point needs it to be a professional program.
So, is Apple sunk? Not entirely. This can't be good for business, but Pogue, in his follow-up, lays it out like so:
Apple has followed the typical Apple sequence: (1) throw out something that's popular and comfortable but increasingly ancient, (2) replace it with something that's slick and modern and forward-looking and incomplete, (3) spend another year finishing it up, restoring missing pieces.
That is to say, Final Cut Pro X's shortcomings aren't terminal. Like the FCPs before it, it can be augmented with plug-ins (some of which run for a pretty penny). Likewise, Apple can bolster and patch the program to address what has been left out. That isn't erasing the worry, though, that this is a fundamentally different program that not only doesn't address the needs the one before it did, but can't, and it's leaving Apple in a dangerous gap right now where rivals such as Avid and Premiere — also used for the same non-linear editing — are no doubt eying that "industry standard" crowd.
Confidence in FCP has definitely been injured, however. In "[throwing] out something that's popular and comfortable but increasingly ancient," as Pogue puts it, Apple has also left behind the file formats and workflows and the general way the professional video editing world does business and has essentially said, "Here, we know better." The professional video editing world, by and large, does not appear to agree.
The saddest thing of all? This heated war of words probably could have been avoided by just calling the damn thing something else, such as christening it the next iteration of Final Cut Express and seeing how the pros took to it.
Until Apple can make good, we're going to have to deal with less True Grit, and more of this:
Conan O'Brien — you rogue!
UPDATE: Looks like some unhappy folks have managed to get some quiet refunds from Apple — something that goes directly against Apple's iTunes store policies (and most digital download services, actually, such as Valve's Steam).
Big thanks to pro-editor and friend-of-the-site Sam Goetz, who fielded my many, many questions while researching this subject.