Author Topic: Is Apple pushing away professionals?  (Read 1261 times)

Offline Kristopher

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Is Apple pushing away professionals?
« on: October 19, 2011, 05:26:27 am »
Posted on 14 Oct 2011 at 16:53

The traditional Mac loyalists in the creative industries are starting to turn their back on Apple, finds Stewart Mitchell

Macs have long been regarded as the natural home for creative professionals, even if Apple actually holds surprisingly little sway in a great many areas of design and media work.

However, a series of recent decisions has angered professionals – including the neutering of Final Cut Pro and the near-elimination of matte screens – spawning a belief that the company is turning its back on pros and seeking richer pickings from the scale of the consumer market that can’t get enough of the iPhone and iPad.

Will this agitation end in formerly loyal customers ditching the Mac platform they’ve supported through the lean, pre-iPod years? There are plenty of creative companies that are perfectly happy with Windows, and more are being tempted to join them.

Dominance exaggerated

It’s an unwritten rule that most creatives can’t be prised from their Macs, whether in publishing, graphic design or music. In truth, there are plenty of artistic industries that rely less on the flare and smoothness of OS X and more on the ubiquity, available software and power of Windows-based machines.

In the growing 3D industry, for example, Windows-based 3ds Max calls the shots, with professionals extolling the virtues of being able to present clients with 3D designs that are more flexible, but the software will only run on Macs that dual-boot into Windows.

For illustration and animation studio Finger Industries, taking its hand-drawn illustrations and turning them into 3D models, rather than flat 2D graphics, means clients can use them in campaigns from billboards to animated adverts. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s all 3D-based,” says Marcus Kenyon, founder of the company. “We use 3ds Max mainly, and that still only runs on a PC.

“You can run it on a Mac – because it’s running an Intel chip – but I have one at home and it isn’t very good for our illustration work. You still need PCs to work in 3D, and we use that for everything now.”

Video and music editing

Video editing has a die-hard Windows following, too, and although Apple has a healthy slice of the professional market (33%, according to the Institute of Videography), it’s by no means as pervasive as the product placements in TV and films would have us believe. “Although Apple makes solid, reliable kit, it isn’t very open, and there are so many different plugins and programs available on the PC that people buy into that,” says Kevin Cook, executive administrator of the Institute of Videography.

The relative cheapness of high-end components also increases Windows’ appeal to video professionals. “Since I’d invested in Windows software, you’re loathe to leave it behind, but the integration with [Adobe] Premiere on a PC and all the other programs I use makes me want to stick with the PC,” says Simon Marcus, director of video production company Addictive Media. “It’s also much cheaper, which is always a consideration.”

In music, too, we found that Macs weren’t necessarily top of the pops, with entertainment distribution and creation company Blueprint Digital using Macs only “to make sure things integrate with iTunes properly”.

In the realm of CAD, although there are programs for Macs, the professionals we spoke to used Windows to run industry-standard software such as SolidWorks.

“Any sort of CAD software is all Windows-based, pretty much across the board,” says Matt Wyre, head of systems at Haughton Design, a consultancy specialising in high-end CAD work for engineering and products. “There’s nothing suitable out there that really runs on the Mac.

You can put Windows on a Mac, and run the software through that, but it defeats the object. You’re paying a fortune for an Apple and then not using it.

“The graphic design industry is the Apple enclave – the sort of thing used for advertising and web design – but with engineering, industrial or proper design, it’s all Windows-based,” he adds.

Is anybody listening?

Even if Apple isn’t as dominant in the creative industries as you might expect, it still has a long-established user-base of professionals committed to its “Pro” range of hardware.

Apple has never been afraid of riling its customers, but a series of recent decisions have angered the professionals who were the backbone of its business in the bleaker days, before the iPod and iPhone reinvented the brand as a consumer luxury.

Unilateral decisions to effectively discontinue professional software packages, lack of support for legacy plugins, and an unpopular fetish for glossy screens has left many wondering if the company has forgotten about professionals in the rush for consumer cash.

The biggest symptom of this perceived change of direction has been the emasculation of Final Cut Pro, an industry-standard video-editing package with a vocal and unhappy community that now feels betrayed by Apple. The sentiment among professional users is that Final Cut Pro’s successor – Final Cut Pro X – is a dumbed-down package sitting somewhere between Pro and the free, consumer-focused iMovies.

“It’s dropped a lot of facilities and functions that video editors were used to having and needed to have, and the feeling is that it’s gone downmarket,” says Addictive Media’s Simon Marcus. “Apple wanted it to be accessible to the masses, but that’s put off the professionals.

“A lot of people seem to be abandoning upgrading, and either sticking with the old version, or switching to something such as Adobe’s Premiere. You can use Premiere on the Mac but, in the main, people using Premiere tend to be on the PC,” he says.

It’s hard to quantify how many people will be switching away from the software, but rival companies have been quick to cash in on the dissatisfaction, with Avid and Adobe both offering 50% discounts to people migrating to their editing packages.

"They’re feeding a demand,” says Cook. “It doesn’t always mean they’ll be jumping from Mac to PC, because Adobe’s Premiere Pro is available on the Mac, and likewise with Avid’s software. The revolt is happening, but perhaps it isn’t against the Mac platform: it’s against Final Cut Pro.”

Professionals who have invested heavily in the software – and potentially expensive plugins – not to mention application-specific training, say Apple misled them when it talked about an upgrade to Final Cut Pro 7, and they’re now bitter, feeling that their investments have been undermined.

“We were told it would be an upgrade to Final Cut Pro, but it isn’t – it’s a whole new package,” says Keith Woolford, an independent video producer and editor. “We’ve trained in it, we’ve bought it, we’ve invested a lot of time and money in it, yet we can’t use it now if we want to go forward.

“There’s no upgrade path, and you can’t open up old Final Cut projects in the new Final Cut Pro X. There are so many things missing from it that it’s not a viable option. For Apple to do this is like a best friend slapping you in the face.” Woolford, however, admits he is unlikely to switch to Windows, mainly because he likes OS X and has invested so heavily in kit and software.

Out of the loop

But Final Cut Pro isn’t the only software issue that’s frustrating professionals – there are a host of compatibility issues that have blighted the recent launch of OS X 10.7, dubbed Lion.

Specialist professionals rely on plugins to make their software run smoothly with other packages on the Mac, and they can cost a king’s ransom, but when Apple moves ahead it doesn’t necessarily wait for other vendors to make compatible versions available.

“I’ve been lucky in that plugins haven’t cost me much money, but you can’t carry them forward to Final Cut Pro X – it’s a different animal,” says Woolford. People who have paid several hundred pounds won’t be willing to upgrade to either Final Cut Pro X or Lion if their plugins don’t work.

None of the professionals we spoke to had yet upgraded to Lion yet, unwilling to act as guinea pigs while compatibility problems were ironed out – and unsure when, or if, the software they use will be supported. Apple says it is up to third-party vendors to make their software work with Lion, but that’s scant consolation for anyone waiting and wondering whether to upgrade.

“I haven’t updated to Lion, purely because I’ve got too much pro software that I can’t lose,” says Ewen Rankin, a photographer and podcast editor, adding that the situation was exemplified by the half-baked way Logic Pro integration had spoiled the audio-editing experience for his Bagel Tech podcast.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on with Logic 8, because Lion effectively doesn’t run it as a front-end. The weird thing is that you can find workarounds through the console, so it isn’t that Lion won’t run it; it’s just that Apple hasn’t allowed the front-end to, so you have to launch it through terminal.”

Dumbing down?

Rankin is particularly concerned over the more general dumbing down of Apple software, and is convinced Lion’s lightweight nature marks an increased focus on consumers at the expense of professional hardware and software. “The background is that Apple has realised that there’s such a market for laptops that they’ve developed an OS for laptops, and if you haven’t got the Magic Trackpad or a new notebook, a lot of the Launchpad doesn’t function particularly well in Lion.

“Even the Magic Mouse has been pretty much abandoned,” he adds. “I prefer editing photos with a mouse, and as a result you’re being left out,” says Rankin.

Rankin is also concerned that the consumerisation of Final Cut and Lion will extend to other professional favourites, such as photo-processing software. “The next one that might go that way is Aperture, which I think will go to an iPhoto-style repository focused on the consumer,” he says.

Apple, coy as ever over future plans, declined to comment on the shift from professionals to consumers.

Glossy screen mutiny

Anyone looking for further evidence that Apple isn’t listening to professionals need look no further than the issue of glossy screens. Although opinion is divided on the merits of such screens – our own Jon Honeyball defended them to the hilt in a recent column – Apple’s aversion to matte coatings is causing disquiet among the Mac ranks.

Detailed editing work is made more difficult, experts say, when there are multiple reflections onscreen, with editors complaining they want to focus on the work, not their own image. Oddly, only the 15in and 17in versions of the MacBook Pro come with options for an anti-glare screen – at a £120 premium. Even the images on Apple’s store show distracting glare across the screens of its glossy iMac displays.

“I took a knife and popped the screen out of my iMac, and calibrated it from the bare screen because I couldn’t cope with the reflections of it,” says Rankin. “It looks gorgeous, but in terms of functionality, if you’re in a brightly lit office, it’s virtually useless. There are people in video-editing suites who are having to work practically in the dark, in terms of checking for quality and clarity and retouching.”

The only viable solution to the problem is to buy a screen from a third-party manufacturer. “I want to see only the images and applications I’m using, not reflections of the room around me, and I often look at the screen for up to 16 hours a day,” says photographer Bill Wisser. “Recently, I bought $7,000 of computer equipment, including a new eight-core Mac Pro and a new 30in monitor – a Dell.

“I’d have much preferred to buy an Apple display, but Apple gave me no choice. There’s no 30in Apple monitor any more, and the new 27in Cinema display comes in only mirror-finish glossy.”

The move has led to 2,000 signatures on an online petition to persuade Apple to change its stance, and the comments on the Mac Matte forum suggest a large swathe of professionals are holding off buying new Mac gear until the screen situation is resolved – or are considering moving to cheaper machines running Windows. Certainly, screen manufacturers are already benefiting from Apple’s shiny intransigence.

Premium hardware or premium price?

While the screen debate is dominating professional concerns, Apple is also facing criticism over the components going into its machines, with loyal users questioning the quality of components, and Windows supporters highlighting how much cheaper their platform is for design and editing studios.

“You need a powerful system, and to get the top-of-the-range powerful system on a PC is less expensive than it is to get a Mac,” says Marcus. “There’s also the fact that you can build up and swap internals to create on optimum system on a PC. That’s really advantageous to me; I can pop in a graphics card if I want a more powerful one.”

Video production houses we spoke to told of rendering workstations based on 3.3GHz Core i7 machines overclocked to 4.5GHz, packing 32GB of RAM, and running 64-bit Windows 7 – and loved the fact they could add more memory as needed. If the bean counters in large design houses spot the disparity in pricing between PCs and comparable Macs, Apple could face a more serious crisis than the background noise raised by disgruntled independent customers.

The ad hoc tailor-made approach is the antithesis of Apple’s sealed-unit mentality, but some Apple die-hards are beginning to question whether what going’s on inside the box on Macs is worth the price tag, and even if it’s worthy of the much-loved OS X operating system, which is what really keeps most professionals hooked.

“The problem with Apple is that I lust after the OS and the UI integration, but not the hardware,” says Rankin. “The hardware now is at the stage where it no longer ‘just works’. Upgrades are breaking things on a repeated basis.”

Given that Apple charges a premium based on quality, despite the fact that many components are off-the-shelf purchases for PCs, Rankin is beginning to wonder whether the price is justified. Gone are the days when bespoke IBM Power PC chips powered Macs. The company’s machines are now largely based on common components.

“When you look at the premium that Apple is now charging for hardware – the stuff is bulk-standard, not unique in the same way,” says Rankin. “Not the motherboards so much, but certainly the graphics cards, the drives – they’re bog-standard items and Apple is charging three times the price for them.

“People will get hacked off. I’m only Apple because I want the OS, but if I could come up with a ‘Hackintosh’ with OS X, I’d be so happy.”

Mac migration

The question for the creative firms that use Apple, and for the company itself, is whether any of these mini-storms will build into the sort of climate change that might irreparably damage Apple’s position in the professional market. Already design houses are taking a case-by-case approach, driven by finance as much as creative preferences.

Aside from the operating system, there’s very little that you can do on one that you can’t do on the other

“The majority of work we do is on traditional PC setups – and a lot of the time the reason for that is that we build our PCs from the motherboard up, so the desktops are Windows,” says Nick Pye, director of creative design agency Agent8. “When it comes to laptops, that’s when we get out a MacBook Pro – we’ve found that they’re very good at handling video editing out of the office. If you want to achieve the same sort of power and performance with a Windows laptop, you’d need to be paying more than the price of a MacBook. A client would also expect you to be using a MacBook.”

Fundamentally, clients don’t care whether you’re cooking on gas or electric – it’s about the finished product. The choice in many cases isn’t business-led, or even down to which platform is best, it’s about personal taste.

“I can see where other creative companies might have the desire to use Macs, but that’s more about the culture in the company and the people involved than an actual requirement,” says Richard Bron, CEO of Blueprint Digital. “Aside from the operating system, there’s very little that you can do on one that you can’t do on the other.”

What’s perhaps most frustrating is that the majority of creatives, given the choice, would perhaps be happiest with OS X running all their favourite applications, combined with the upgradable and cheaper PC hardware. That idea of the “Hackintosh” sounds more appealing all the time.

Author: Stewart Mitchel