Avid vs. FCP – Market Dominance?

You see a lot of these arguments on the web. “My NLE can beat up your NLE.” Invariably any discussion of Avid or Apple marketing among a group of editors degenerates into childish platform wars. From the outside this must sound as stupid as two bubbas arguing over the best truck – Ford or Chevy. All of the debaters seem to share the attitude that “I know the truth and if I could only get this moron to realize what I’m saying, they’d see the light and change their wicked ways.” It comes from a belief that one single company CAN dominate the market to the exclusion of all others and users will be satisfied. I personally don’t believe that’s true. Historically, any dominant company only held that position for a few short years.


A history lesson


Linear and nonlinear electronic editing owe their start to CMX. The early nonlinear efforts were premature, but the linear byproduct took off and dominated post in the late 70s and 80s. There were others, but CMX was king of the linear hill until giving up some market share to ISC/Grass Valley, Sony and Axial. Modern nonlinear seriously took hold in the 90s, but the market had its large niches. Avid, Media 100 and EMC2 for spot offline, Avid and Lightworks for film and CMX, Grass Valley, Sony and Axial linear systems for online finishing. Around the same time that uncompressed NLEs came into being (first Quantel and Softimage – then Avid), Avid became the dominant force in all of these niches. Although there were still many other players (Media 100, Quantel, Axial, Immix, etc.), Avid overshadowed all the rest. Just before the Millennium, Final Cut Pro hit the market, was purchased by Apple and has come to be the first serious challenge to Avid’s market dominance in years.


FCP’s detractors are fond of saying that Apple looses money on FCP as a loss leader to sell Apple hardware – or that FCP grew because most of the users pirated the software. They point to these as reasons for FCP’s quick adoption rate. In 2008, Apple announced that licensed users of Final Cut (combining all owners of Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Studio and Final Cut Express software) passed the 1,000,000 mark. If many FCP users really have pirated their software, then that simply means the number of actual users far exceeds 1,000,000. Certainly all don’t have the latest version and most probably aren’t editors cutting spots, TV shows or films. It’s likely that many of these 1,000,000 are event, church and educational videographers along with quite a few hobbyists. I would consider most of these users at least as “professional” as most of the users of Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Liquid or Xpress DV/Pro. If at least half of the known user base bought upgrades at several hundred dollars, then this still positions Apple with a couple of hundred million dollars of income to put into ProApps product development. Not bad for a software product.


The real users


I’ve encountered many new editors, such as film students whom I’ve taught at the community college level. If FCP is being used by the proverbial “kid editing in his bedroom”, then this would be the group doing it. In fact, I find that often their NLE experience (legal or otherwise) is just as likely to be Adobe or Avid as it is Apple. Given that Mac market share continues to hover in the single-digit range, simple percentages would push the break in the direction of PC software – NOT Final Cut Pro. Most of the professional FCP users I run into are, in fact, former Avid editors or users of other systems, who changed to FCP at a point when they needed to upgrade or because their previous NLE vendors went out of business and it was time to move on. Why was this change made to FCP? Well, the obvious answer is cost, but that’s far too simplistic.


Final Cut Pro is often said to be an 80/20 solution – 80% of the features (of a system like Avid, in theory) at 20% of the cost. The actual percentages are irrelevant, but the sentiment implies that purchasers are willing to put up with some missing features if they can get the job done at a far lower cost. I don’t completely disagree with the cost argument, but it’s not limited to Apple. When Final Cut came out, it was inherently a resolution-independent editor, but without any hardware support. It would have never been anything other than a DV-based editor if hardware companies like Digital Voodoo, Pinnacle and Matrox hadn’t introduced companion products.


Adding a Digital Voodoo card to early versions of FCP wasn’t terribly stable, but it allowed you to get into uncompressed editing for far less that the competing Avid Symphony. At the time, many editors argued that the image quality was better out of the Digital Voodoo cards. When Pinnacle introduced CineWave, it was the first time you could post uncompressed HD for a total workstation cost of well under $100,000 at a time when the next cheapest thing was Avid DS at over $300,000. AJA and Blackmagic Design quickly joined the mix of Final Cut Pro hardware vendors. Up until now, Avid has been late in answering every one of these challenges, leaving many owners of older Avid systems to simply conclude that Final Cut Pro (with an AJA or BMD card) was the only way they could get into any sort of HD editing and survive on the tighter budgets that their clients were offering them.


The better editor


As I said, I’m not completely sold on the 80/20 argument. Another way to look at it is found in blogger Robert Cringely’s “The Five Percent Solution”. His premise is that a new product only has to be 5% better than the previous product in order to replace it in the minds and hearts of users. According to Cringley, a 5% improvement is good enough to force that shift. Of course, most Avid loyalists will argue that Avid is clearly better than FCP, but I’ve used both for years at this point and I don’t agree. Avid’s strong points are the robustness of media management, very responsive editing dynamics and advanced performance. Final Cut’s strengths are its easy timeline editing functions, the ability to mix many media types due to the QuickTime architecture and the embrace of third party hardware. You can certainly tally even more points on each side, but the value any of these has to your personal editing style and system demands is going to vary with every editor.


Each application has numerous features that I feel are clearly lacking in the other, but for me, there’s enough that I like about FCP to feel that the “five percent solution” argument applies. In my own market, most of the facilities have shifted to FCP. I know many former Avid editors who have shifted to FCP. Most acknowledge that the performance of the Media Composer 3.0 is clearly superior to FCP, yet none are interested in going back to Avid. Clearly they see at least 5% that is better, as well.


Market share


I started by talking about market dominance. I believe that Avid will continue to be a strong player for years to come. They appear to be better off in every way (financial situation, product offerings and general company “smarts”) than CMX in the close of the linear era. I just don’t believe that they will be the one and only NLE vendor. More likely the mix will be spread across market and business niches. Historically, this has been true for cameras, VTRs, telecines and other professional video products. There’s simply no reason why one company SHOULD be the only force in the market. Over the years we’ve seen many shifts in market leaderships. Think RCA, Ampex, Sony, Ikegami, Rank and others.


Here’s what I see in the crystal ball …  Final Cut will continue to make the greatest inroads in markets outside of New York, Los Angeles and other media capitols. It will be the NLE of choice in production companies and small editorial boutiques. Avid will continue to be dominant in broadcast – especially hard news. I think the corporate and event world is up for grabs – probably split between all companies, with the biggest percentage falling to Adobe. Film cutting is going to be Avid for now, but with a shift to Final Cut as older editors retire and the assistants fill their shoes. Digital film finishing (DI) is going to be the world of Quantel, daVinci and Autodesk, shared with newcomers like Assimilate, Digital Vision and Filmlight.


None of this is good or bad. It’s simply the way it is. Innovation can come from all sides. Diversity and competition breed innovation. Don’t shrink from it! Embrace it!


© 2008 Oliver Peters