NAB 2014 Thoughts

Whodathunkit? More NLEs, new cameras from new vendors and even a new film scanner! I’ve been back from NAB for a little over a week and needed to get caught up on work while decompressing. Look for a more detailed analysis of the 2014 NAB show in my upcoming article for Digital Video magazine. For now, here are some thoughts in broad strokes.

Avid Connect. My trip started early with the Avid Connect costumer event. This was a corporate gathering with over 1,000 paid attendees. Avid execs and managers outlined the corporate vision of Avid Everywhere in presentations that were head-and-shoulders better than any executive presentations Avid has given in years. For many who attended, it was to see if there was still life in Avid. I think the general response was receptive and positive. Avid Everywhere is basically a realignment of existing and future products around a platform concept. That has more impact if you own Avid storage or asset management software. Less so, if you only own a seat of Media Composer or ProTools. No new software features were announced, but new pricing models were announced with options to purchase or rent individual seats of the software – or to rent floating licenses in larger quantities.

4K. As predicted, 4K was all over the show. However, when you talked to vendors and users, there was little clear direction about actual mastering in 4K. It is starting to be a requirement in some circles, like delivering to Netflix, for example; but for most users 4K stops at acquisition. There is interest for archival reasons, as well as for reframing shots when the master is HD or 2K.

Cameras. New cameras from Blackmagic Design. Not much of a surprise there. One is the bigger, ENG-style URSA, which is Blackmagic’s solution to all of the add-ons people use with smaller HDSLR-sized cameras. The biggest feature is a 10” flip-out LCD monitor. AJA was the real surprise with its own 4K Cion camera. Think KiPro Quad with a camera built around it. Several DPs I spoke with weren’t that thrilled about either camera, because of size or balance. A camera that did get everyone jazzed was Sony’s A7s, one of their new Alpha series HDSLRs. It’s 4K-capable when recorded via HDMI to an external device. The images were outstanding. Of course, 4K wasn’t everywhere. Notably not at ARRI. The news there is the Amiraa sibling to the Alexa. Both share the same sensor design, with the Amira designed as a documentary camera. I’m sure it will be a hit, in spite of being a 2K camera.

Mac Pro. The new Mac Pro was all over the show in numerous booths. Various companies showed housings and add-ons to mount the Mac Pro for various applications. Lots of Thunderbolt products on display to address expandability for this unit, as well as Apple laptops and eventually PCs that will use Thunderbolt technology. The folks at FCPworks showed a nice DIT table/cart designed to hold a Mac Pro, keyboard, monitoring and other on-set essentials.

FCP X. Speaking of FCP X, the best place to check it out was at the off-site demo suite that FCPworks was running during the show. The suite demonstrated a number of FCP X-based workflows using third-party utilities, shared storage from Quantum and more. FCP X was in various booths on the NAB show floor, but to me it seemed limited to partner companies, like AJA. I thought the occurrences of FCP X in other booths was overshadowed by Premiere Pro CC sightings. No new FCP X feature announcements or even hints were made by Apple in any private meetings.

NLEs. The state of nonlinear editing is in more flux than ever. FCP X seems to be picking up a little steam, as is Premiere Pro. Yet, still no clear market leader across all sectors. Autodesk announced Smoke 2015, which will be the last version you can buy. Following Adobe’s lead, this year they shift to a rental model for their products. Smoke 2015 diverges more from the Flame UI model with more timeline-based effects than Smoke 2013. Lightworks for the Mac was demoed at the EditShare booth, which will make it another new option for Mac editors. Nothing new yet out of Avid, except some rebranding – Media Composer is now Media Composer | Software and Sphere is now Media Composer | Cloud. Expect new features to be rolled in by the end of this year. The biggest new player is Blackmagic Design, who has expanded the DaVinci Resolve software into a full-fledged NLE. With a cosmetic resemblance to FCP X, it caused many to dub it “the NLE that Final Cut Pro 8 should have been”. Whether that’s on the mark or just irrational exuberance has yet to be determined. Suffice it to say that Blackmagic is serious about making it a powerful editor, which for now is targeted at finishing.

Death of i/o cards. I’ve seen little mention of this, but it seems to me that dedicated PCIe video capture cards are a thing of the past. KONA and Decklink cards are really just there to support legacy products. They have less relevance in the file-based world. Most of the focus these days is on monitoring, which can be easily (and more cheaply) handled by HDMI or small Thunderbolt devices. If you looked at AJA and Matrox, for example, most of the target for PCIe cards is now to supply the OEM market. AJA supplies Quantel with their 4K i/o cards. The emphasis for direct customers is on smaller output-only products, mini-converters or self-contained format converters.

Film. If you were making a custom, 35mm film scanner – get out of the business, because you are now competing against Blackmagic Design! Their new film scanner is based on technology acquired through the purchase of Cintel a few months ago. Now Blackmagic introduced a sleek 35mm scanner capable of up to 30fps with UltraHD images. It’s $30K and connects to a Mac Pro via Thunderbolt2. Simple operation and easy software (plus Resolve) will likely rekindle the interest at a number of facilities for the film transfer business. That will be especially true at sites with a large archive of film.

Social. Naturally NAB wouldn’t be the fun it is without the opportunity to meet up with friends from all over the world. That’s part of what I get out of it. For others it’s the extra training through classes at Post Production World. The SuperMeet is a must for many editors. The Avid Connect gala featured entertainment by the legendary Nile Rodgers and his band Chic. Nearly two hours of non-stop funk/dance/disco. Quite enjoyable regardless of your musical taste. So, another year in Vegas – and not quite the ho-hum event that many had thought it would be!

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

Simplicity

df_simplicityThe ongoing battle in all areas of the tech sector has focused on the conundrum of simplicity versus complexity. The central question being, whether or not a professional application needs to be complex by its very nature. We’ve seen this in the Final Cut Pro X arguments and we will see it again with the new Mac Pro. Clearly everything Apple has been doing for many years, is to enhance the user experience by hiding some of the complexity under the hood.

This recently has come home to me in several ways. First, when Apple launched Final Cut Pro X a little over two years ago, some of my acquaintances on the Pro Apps team made this comment in regard to the streamlining of user settings compared with FCP 7. They pointed out that they would no longer need to field those tech support calls from confused users. Although I’ve always found this versatility useful in FCP 7, I do recognize that what they were saying was quite true, as the myriad of user format options was overwhelming for nearly all beginning and casual users. By streamlining this, FCP X allows users to quickly dive in and start editing – with the added benefit of lower support costs for Apple.

I recently had my 2009 Mac Pro repaired at a local Apple Store. This took a longer-than-normal amount of time and towards the end, I was calling the Geniuses every other day to find out what the hold-up was. In those conversations, the tech on more than one occasion noted how complex the Mac Pro towers are and how long it takes to run the proper diagnostics in order to truly isolate and repair a hard-to-define issue. In the end, the repair was well done and they were more than fair. In fact, the final bill was so low that I’ve come to realize the Genius Bar service simply can’t be a profit center for Apple. It is, in fact, part of Apple’s holistic approach to the customer experience. From a corporate point-of-view, this means that pressure has to be on quick repair and lower operating costs. Under this concept, wholesale board swaps – even when it amounts to using a bazooka to kill an ant – are far cheaper than component-level electronics repair. With that philosophy, the design inherent in an iMac or new Mac Pro, is bound to yield rewards for Apple in the cost of operating its Genius Bar repair service.

Another variation of this is software. As part of the repair, certain components were replaced that tie into how software, like plug-ins, is serialized to a particular machine. In essence, my machine was now internally viewed by some of the licensing as a different computer. To clean up some of these issues – and to do an upgrade to Mavericks – I opted for a completely clean installation of the OS, coupled with re-installation of all applications and re-authorization of all necessary software and plug-ins. No migration. It’s the sort of thing that can do wonders for your machine’s performance, but it’s also something everyone avoids. This took two-and-a-half days. As I went through this process, the easiest part by far, was re-installation of any Apple application. Not only was this simple, thanks to the App Store, but some of the older apps that were installed from discs, were then subsequently upgraded to App Store versions. The second easiest was Adobe using Creative Cloud. Again, log-in and download the applications you want to use. Among the plug-ins, FxFactory (and their associated partners) was easy, because they, too, have adopted an App Store-style model.

If you look out at the greater world of computing, the macho-tech experience of dealing with towers, peripherals, add-ons and more is waning for all but the most complex set-ups. Naturally, if you are going from a large investment in these add-ons to a new Mac Pro with Thunderbolt, you are going to need to buy some adapters, docks, etc. to see you through the interim transition. But look around you. The reliance on such peripherals is the exception and not the rule. Most users are on laptops. If they have a tower, it’s probably not much more that the stock set-up. Mac users have migrated to all-in-one iMacs. Tablets are everywhere. I almost never take my laptop on the road anymore, unless I need it for actual production. My iPad is more than adequate. All of this means that for the vast majority of users – including pros with demanding requirements – the hardware is fading into the background, because simpler solutions are powerful enough to get the job done.

My dad used to repair TVs. He worked through an era when component-level troubleshooting gave way to circuit board/module swaps. While the pieces might have been more expensive, the cost in labor was less for complex problems. Fast forward to today and there probably isn’t a single flat panel that we buy, which has much if any ability to be repaired. Computers are following that same path and so is software.

This will scare many. I used to write simple autoexec.bat files in the DOS days. These let me create a menu page with a table of contents for the applications I used. Typing in the number of the application from that list would launch the software and when done, would exit back to this menu page. I certainly have no need, nor interest in doing that with any modern OS. It was a skill set based on the needs of a cruder technology, but is now as obsolete as setting up a 2” Quad VTR. Tinkering with your computer or software falls into the same realm as shade-tree auto repair. You can do it on a ’57 Chevy, but you certainly can’t do it on any modern automobile. To some this may have seemed like fun. To me, I’d rather get on about with the business of using the software/hardware to achieve results.

©2013 Oliver Peters

 

More thoughts about Adobe’s Creative Cloud

df_adobecloud_1Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that in June Adobe switched its access to software from a licensed ownership to a subscription model. After a year of offering both options – perpetual licenses and subscription – Adobe has decided to go all-in on subscriptions for the latest version of its creative tools, while continuing to offer perpetual licenses only for Adobe CS6 products. Adobe has branded these offerings under two divisions – the Creative Cloud (content creation software) and the Marketing Cloud (back-end web, marketing and analysis software). This move changes your interaction with Adobe’s software from one of purchasing a product to one of purchasing a service that includes software tools as part of the package.

Predictably, many creative professionals have been in an uproar, because continued access to your Adobe software-based project files means that you need to maintain a valid subscription for that software to function. There are many pros and cons in this argument and some users will find it a really good deal, while others could end up paying more per year, depending on their previous upgrade cycles. Let me try to clarify some of the issues. First, the term “cloud” tends to be misunderstood. In the case of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, the software you choose to use is downloaded and locally installed on your computer. Any Creative Cloud application version carries the suffix CC instead of CS (as in CS6). There are additional cloud-based services hosted by Adobe’s servers that are available to subscribers, who are free to use or not use these as they see fit.

Just the facts, ma’am.

You do not have to maintain a constant internet connection to use the installed software, but it does ping Adobe’s authorization servers monthly to check your account status. Lack of a successful account check kicks the software into a trial mode for a period of time before the software is completely de-authorized and cannot be opened. In the case of people paying by the month, there’s a 30-day grace period. For those who have paid for a year in advance, it’s 180 days. Cloud subscriptions can be purchased for single applications or as individual, Team or Enterprise accounts. Individual users can install and simultaneously run any Adobe software on up to two machines (Mac and/or PC), while Team accounts are valid for only one machine per authorized user. Individual subscribers must download software separately to each machine; but, there is an option for Team and Enterprise users to install localized, server-based tools for simplified installation across multiple workstations.

For most people, the big plus to the Adobe Creative Cloud is access to the entire repertoire of Adobe content creation tools for web, print, photography and video. For the cost of the single subscription, you have access to use any of the applications formerly known as the Master Collection, as well as Lightroom. If you bought the Creative Suite 6 Master Collection today, that would run you $2,599 (plus Lightroom). Version upgrades have been in the $600 range and Adobe had been on an annual cycle of updates. Now with Creative Cloud, the equivalent software “bundle” costs $49.99/month without the initial outlay up front to own it. Of course, that’s the rub for many users, because when you quit paying, you can no longer open, edit or export legacy projects. The truth of the matter is that your software doesn’t just go “poof” and vanish from your hard drive. If you needed to re-activate a subscription six months later, then it would simply be a matter of renewing your account for as little as a few months to get you through your project revisions.

Advantages of the Cloud

There are several selling points to the Creative Cloud that have even skeptics coming on board. Up-to-date software is a big one. When you first install Creative Cloud, a new resident desktop management tool is installed, which replaces the former Adobe Application Manager. The Creative Cloud desktop application manages which software is installed and up-to-date, including both perpetual CS6 and subscribed CC versions. Adobe’s intent is to offer faster version updates, feature additions and bug fixes through the cloud delivery model.

If you are on a Mac, then pending Creative Cloud updates are also flagged through the OS X Notification Center. You control when to install an update. To date, Adobe has already delivered several updates with bug fixes and new features. The desktop application seems to work reasonably well, but I have experienced some download issues. My recommendation is to use it for updates or additional downloads only after a computer restart for best results.

By using this software-as-a-service model, Adobe is no longer bound by the arcane policies surrounding the timing of feature improvements, which are a by-product of the Sarbanes Oxley regulations. Instead, Adobe is free to update features when they are viable, rather than hold off to wait for quarterly revenue cycles.

Customers focused on one line of business, like only video or only photography, have a real advantage in this new scheme. For no additional cost, Adobe has now given you access to the software necessary to add new revenue streams. Want to add website design services? The Creative Cloud desktop application makes this easy. If you started with a handful of video apps and now want to download and add a few print or web applications, then simply click the additional software to install them.

Value added services

Aside from access to Adobe’s software, the Creative Cloud is an effort by Adobe to build a community and become a one-stop creative resource for its users. Not all of the options have been fully implemented yet.  Using the Creative Cloud desktop application you will be able to upload and share project files, sync application settings, install additional fonts and join the Behance design community. The latter is a portfolio site geared towards photographers and graphic designers. It supports video samples, but is not as well-known to video editors as YouTube or Vimeo. Adobe will also host up to five websites per account.

Adobe offers each user up to 20GB of online storage backed by Amazon. Unfortunately access to this storage hasn’t been integrated into the desktop tool and requires access through a web browser. You can store files there and allow others to download them, but video files do not play from within a browser. They must be downloaded and viewed locally. All-in-all, these services are a nice add-on. If your main focus is video, though, these are not yet an appropriate replacement for Apple’s old iDisk, Vimeo, DropBox or even a service like Sorenson360. Adobe is aware of this and has indicated that improving the Creative Cloud’s video-related services as a priority going forward.

Adobe has sought to respond to the flak surrounding software de-authorization when you end a subscription. Although a number of potential solutions have been posed – such as read-only access to past project files – there have not been any definitive announcements yet. Photoshop CC and After Effects CC do offer some backwards compatibility, but Premiere Pro CC is only forward-compatible. That means, you can migrate a project from Premiere Pro CS6 to Premiere Pro CC, but not in the reverse direction. Actual users of the Creative Cloud seem less concerned, but if this is an issue in your mind, then make sure to export your project in forms that ensure some compatibility, including XMLs, EDLs and superless, textless master files.

Conclusion

Whether or not the Adobe Creative Cloud is a good deal for you depends on many variables. Here are two anecdotal examples. A local college uses plenty of Adobe software across several departments, including graphic design, photography, digital media and film technology. That’s likely to be several hundred computers across several campuses. Four more licenses of the Creative Cloud just within the film program adds approximately $1400 annually to that department’s budget. Often upgrades of hardware and software are done via grants and don’t happen on a regular and predictable annual basis. Moving an entire school to a Cloud plan, means a big change in how such software is purchased, because it changes from being an asset to a monthly expense.

In example two, look at a company that forms around a single project. This is common of limited corporations formed to produce a single film and then close their doors when it’s done. Often they need software to edit and do effects, but also to cover they own print and web marketing needs. In this example, the Creative Cloud is perfect, because all of Adobe’s relevant software is available to them for a monthly charge. Simply put a small Team account in place for the year that the company exists and the net cost is much less than compared with the perpetual license model. For this type of client, there’s no ongoing value to the software as a tangible asset once the corporation is dissolved.

The Adobe Creative Cloud will come across as a good deal for many. It has afforded a lot of individual users the ability to “come clean” with legal access to all of Adobe’s content creation software on what, for many, amounts to one billable hour per month. Larger users, like production companies, broadcasters, ad agencies and corporate users seem very excited about being able to put any Adobe application on any computer in their operation (depending on their subscription plan). The extra Cloud services like Behance and 20GB of online storage are icing on the cake that can save money elsewhere by replacing other paid services. I suspect once the ruckus over the subscription model settles down, for better or worse, many other software companies will follow Adobe’s trek down this pioneering trail.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Thinking about the Tube

df_mp_1Desktop computers had been on a trajectory of faster performance based on Moore’s Law until they hit the wall just under the 4GHz mark. Then came a variety of ingenious technological workarounds, including hyper-threading, multiple processors (CPUs), multiple cores within a single processor and finally, offloading processing to one or more graphics display cards (GPUs). All of these solutions have benefitted content creation professionals running edit and graphics software. With all of that effort, no one seems to have taken the effort to re-imagine how the hardware should work, nor whether the hardware is really built for what software developers are doing. For example, few applications really make effective use of multiple CPUs in a computer.

Add to this the financial aspect, which points to the growth in laptops and tablets to the detriment of traditional desktop computer sales. Is there even a need for a desktop machine that caters to professional users? Into this uncertainty comes Apple with the new Mac Pro, which I’ve euphemistically called “the Tube” in my title. df_mp_6Apple is the king of re-imagining. After months and years of wondering whether Apple still cares about professional computer users, they blew away the audience at their annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) with an innovative new design for the next generation of Mac Pro desktop workstation. Like anything Apple does, a lot of legacy technology was dropped, which has drawn both praise and criticism. Those of us in the camp that predicted few or no slots and more use of Thunderbolt had largely guessed right. But the rest of this machine’s design is literally thinking “outside of the box”.df_mp_2

Right or wrong, the Mac Pro that Apple plans to ship represents design and engineering innovation that IBM, Lenovo, Sony, Dell, HP and others are clearly incapable of delivering. All of their products tend to follow the standard PC “box” formula, with the notable exception of HP’s Z1 – itself a copy of Apple’s iMac. Naturally the round design raises concerns about rack installation and so on, but very few desktop systems used by video pros have that need anymore. If you think round is odd, then take a look at the design of supercomputers like those from Cray.

df_mp_11The new Mac Pro is clearly intended to put the maximum horsepower literally on (or under) the desk of the working video editor, graphic designer, animator, scientist and others. As noted above, many applications don’t make efficient use of multiple CPU sockets, so the Mac Pro seems to be limited to a single CPU, but based on new Intel chips that have a maximum of 12 internal cores. Apple is banking on increased reliance on the GPU to deliver visual performance. Out of the gate, there are two built-in GPUs. Clearly this will benefit core Apple creative software, like Final Cut Pro X, but also others, including DaVinci Resolve and many of the Adobe products.

df_mp_3Look more closely at the video subsystem of this machine. Apple is designing a machine geared for 4K production and post. With multiple GPUs and built-in HDMI output using the 4K-ready spec, the new Mac Pro should be able to cut 4K content “like butter” and handle all monitoring tasks (computer monitoring plus video) without the need for external devices from AJA, Blackmagic Design and others, unless the user has a definite need for these. My guess is that’s why you’ll have the extra GPU horsepower, more so than accelerating FCP X effects.df_mp_5

Connectivity is now based on USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2.0. The latter is a 20Gb/s bi-directional data pipe and this Mac Pro has three such busses split over six ports. While there’s been a lot of discussion on the web about whether this is adequate compared with the current PCIe standard, I think it’s too early to say one way or the other. Firewire – once Apple’s darling – has been relegated to history’s dust bin, right next to SCSI, floppy diskettes and other older technologies. In any case, if you need more connections, then Thunderbolt adapters and/or an expansion chassis will be the way to go. Just like Apple’s philosophy with FCP X, this new Mac Pro is more of a “platform” than an all-inclusive solution for people who have every possible type of need. It’s the “hub” that will handle the majority of pro requirements and if you need more, you’ll have to augment the “hub” with third-party products and devices.

df_mp_9That brings us to cost. The internal pieces of this machine aren’t cheap. It’s anyone’s guess what the price will be. There is at least the potential for it to be relatively expensive. On the other hand, Apple has a lot of leverage with its supply chain and may have incentive to offer the machine at an artificially low price. They will be flying the “Made in the USA” banner with this Mac Pro and they also have added more in-house R&D centers across the US. So, in coming years, more of the internal guts could become Apple-manufactured, which could reduce production cost. My guess is that the retail price will be somewhere in line with current Mac Pro machines. After all, a fully-decked-out, current 12-core Mac Pro aluminum tower isn’t cheap either.df_mp_7

In any case, this will be a very low-volume machine. It’s the sports car that defines the brand. Apple may or may not decide to make it profitable. Another variable we don’t know is whether the technology used, such as dual internal GPUs, will be integrated into new iMac models. In that case, a small number of users will actually buy the Mac Pro. Many will drool over it and then end up buying a decked out iMac – no slouch, by any means. df_mp_4Thus, the “halo” effect. You’re attracted by the shiny, black Mac Pro, but purchase the iMac, which generates more bread-and-butter income for Apple. Unlike any other technology company, Apple assesses its bottom line using a holistic approach. If a product contributes to the total revenue of the company, then it’s deemed important to have and to develop, even if that product by itself is not profitable (though, that’s usually not the case with an Apple product). No one outside of Apple’s executive level really knows for sure.

As a video editor, I love what Apple is doing with this machine. Does it work for my needs and will I buy one? I don’t know yet. Depends on price and actual performance, but it’s certainly on the wish list at this point.

©2013 Oliver Peters