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A Look at the Great iMovie Controversy

Just what is Apple’s iLife good for? That consideration lies at the heart of the objections raised about the major change in the focus of iMovie ’08.

The previous edition, iMovie HD, seemed on the verge of becoming a semi-professional movie editing application in some respects. There were even plugins available to enhance its basic functionality.

With the new version, a lot of that has vanished, along with features that many took for granted, such as the traditional movie-editing timeline and more sophisticated audio production tools. Some called it a dumbing down of the application, in order to cater to today’s YouTube fans. That’s an implied insult, of course, but that’s not the real issue at stake here.

Now when Steve Jobs talked about the changes, he told the story of an Apple software engineer coming up with the basic idea for a new iMovie application while on vacation. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s nothing more than a metaphor for the need to alter the focus of iMovie because it was moving far away from its original goal, which was to be a simple consumer video editing tool.

The conventional wisdom has it that Apple provided the previous version of iMovie because it knew it had a dog on its hands, and hoped to satisfy disappointed customers that way. But that may not be the point.

To understand the logic behind iMovie’s vast changes, you may just want to take a fresh look at the rest of the iLife ’08 suite just to see how they function and relate to each other.

Take iPhoto. Now it’s perfectly true that you can do superlative work in Adobe Photoshop, but the best of its features require talent and a steep learning curve. But if you just like to take family photos with your digital camera, importing it into iPhoto is a snap — no pun intended. If there’s an exposure problem, a fast click of the Quick Enhance button and perhaps a few other tweaks will improve matters immeasurably in a matter of seconds. In addition, the other basic tasks you need to accomplish, such as emailing, printing and even creating a professional-looking photo album, are relatively simple.

In other words, it’s a tool for the consumer who just wants to get things done quickly and easily. You don’t need the sophisticated refinements of which an application such as Photoshop is capable.

Take a tour through the rest of the iLife applications, particularly iWeb, and you’ll see the same aura of easy familiarity, all accomplished without much of a learning curve, and usually without visiting the Help menus.

But as many have said about iMovie HD, it wasn’t quite as accessible. Sure you could do some great work in it, and sometimes approach professional caliber, but the ease-of-use may have been one factor that was lost as the application became more feature-laden.

The more I read about iMovie ’08, the more I am convinced that Apple’s software architects may have a point. What they’ve come up with is a clever tool for people who just want to grab some footage, add a title, some transitions and export it as a QuickTime movie or a YouTube video. This can all be accomplished in minutes without having to learn any new skills. Most everything seems to run smoothly, considering the application’s huge system requirements.

Indeed, to run iMovie ’08, you need “a Mac with an Intel processor, a Power Mac G5 (dual 2.0GHz or faster), or an iMac G5 (1.9GHz or faster).”

Alas, this excludes most Macs built more than two years ago, and some that are even more recent. That’s not a casual system requirement, and it also means that many of those who fall into the new iMovie’s prime audience won’t be able to install it. You’ll be forced to stick with the previous version, which is being offered as a free download to owners of iLife ’08.

Unlike the other applications in the suite, iMovie ’08 is basically a 1.0 version, despite bearing a 7.x designation. This means that there are going to be bugs, and perhaps some of the features that are present are not as refined as they could be. Certainly, the existing line-up of iMovie plugins are non-functional, but that doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t going to provide hooks for them to be upgraded.

As you might expect, some people are already finding ways to perform the functions seemingly removed from iMovie in a different fashion. You can, for example, do all your audio editing in GarageBand, and then bring that into iMovie to merge with your footage.

Over time, I suppose other features will be added that will bring the new iMovie, at least in its own way, closer in capabilities to its predecessor. On the other hand, if you look at Apple’s goals in changing direction here, it appears they may have succeeded, even if some people ended up unhappy with the result.