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The Final Cut Pro X Controversy: Too Much Emotion?

Back when Apple released iMovie ’08, iLife customers freaked. Apple changed things drastically, particularly such traditional movie editing features as the timeline. Some things were dropped, thus resulting in an app that many perceived as being less usable than the previous version, iMovie HD.

Well, Apple explained, at the time, that building a new consumer editing app was a work in progress, that many lost features would be restored and new capabilities added over time. However, they made available iMovie HD for those who didn’t want to upgrade.

Well, with iMovie ’11, you don’t hear many of those complaints anymore about what went before. Many people simply became accustomed to the new app, which has had a growing set of new features for each and every version. But iMovie HD never stopped working for those who still want to use it.

Segue to 2011 and the arrival of a major overhaul of Apple’s professional video editing app, Final Cut Pro, dubbed Final Cut X. In keeping with Apple’s philosophy of making apps cheaper, it weighs in as a downloadable version only, requiring 10.6.8 as the minimum OS, and costs just 299.99. Add two integrated apps, Compressor and Motion, and you have a well-stocked movie editing studio for $400. How can you beat that?

In its favor, FCPX, the common acronym, takes advantage of full 64-bit support, and all the great performance enhancements Apple incorporated in Mac OS 10.6. What this means is that you can get your work done faster, and not sit back waiting precious minutes for footage to be rendered. Well that’s unless you prefer to have that extra time to take a breather before beginning your next task.

Well, if you are a regular user of Final Cut Pro 7, the previous version, there’s plenty to howl about. Because FCPX is a wholesale rewrite, a brand new app, features video editors took for granted have changed, or are gone. You cannot even import projects from FCP7 because the architecture is too different to allow for proper translation. Or at least that’s what lead developer Randy Ubillos claims.

Even where critical features were retained, in some cases the interfaces have changed so much users have to relearn some skills.

Now Apple has issued an FAQ explaining what was changed, what’s returning, and what won’t return. While I don’t pretend to have any great amount of video editing expertise — my field is radio broadcasting and I edit interviews, not music or movies — it does seem to me that, over time, the tools that pros need to edit movies and videos will probably be restored; if not now, soon. In an email to one customer, Ubillos said that people who create a project in one version of FCP shouldn’t ordinarily need to convert the project to a new and different version.

That answer really offers a healthy dose of common sense. As a commenter wrote the other day in response to one of my articles, it’s not as if FCP7 suddenly stopped working on the day its successor arrived. What’s more, nobody is forced to upgrade until such time as the new version meets their requirements. If it doesn’t suit their needs, they can stick with the older version, or consider another platform, such as Adobe Premiere, available on both the Mac and Windows, or perhaps an Avid system. In other words, they haven’t been abandoned, or left without the critical tools they need to get work done.

But Apple isn’t the innocent party here. They had the hubris to release FCPX without carefully explaining to existing users about the changes, the improvements and the limitations. More to the point, FCP7 was discontinued then and there. Unless someone has some old stock around, you can’t buy a copy. To Apple it’s history, and that was one huge mistake.

This doesn’t mean they can’t and shouldn’t make major changes to apps, pro and otherwise. Certainly the move from the classic or original Mac OS to Mac OS X, beginning in 2001, was difficult to some Mac users. The first versions of Apple’s industrial-strength operating system were missing key features. You couldn’t even play a CD on the first version, 10.0. Worse, performance was sluggish. It took time for Apple to optimize the code, and to harness the power of faster processors and graphics chips to deliver an appropriately responsive OS.

Today, with the arrival of Lion perhaps days, or at most a few weeks away, you don’t hear complaints about the performance of the latest and greatest versions of Mac OS X. Of course, Macs these days are far more powerful than the ones around in the days of 10.0, and part of that is due to the switch to Intel Inside.

It’s clear Apple’s missteps with FCPX will result in some lost customers. Others will, perhaps while holding their noses, try to make FCPX function within their workflow, or they’ll learn to adapt. Over time, as more features are added and improved, it’ll be very clear whether Apple’s bet on the future was the right one, or whether they should simply have given a shave and haircut to the original FCP.

Now since Apple is reportedly granting refunds to disappointed customers, perhaps they could take one sensible step more, and make FCP7 available again. They should also put it in maintenance mode, so critical bug fixes will continue to be released. It doesn’t have to be forever either. Maybe six months or a year would be sufficient to clean up FCPX.

And perhaps a year from now, the great FCPX controversy will be gone and forgotten. That is, if Apple made the right move with their new video editing architecture.