Category Archives: Rants

The End of a Nerdy Era

The idea sort of crept up on me, and I spent a good month going back and forth. Finally, today, I have ordered the necessary software and am preparing for the inevitable: I am turning my 8-Core Mac Pro rig into a Windows box, and switching my day-to-day computing tasks entirely to the Windows environment.

This was not an easy decision to make. I’ve been a Mac guy since I was a very small child, and to this day a select group of friends for which I’m their go-to fix-it guy jokingly refer to me as The Mac Whisperer. I stuck with the platform entirely through the bad old days of the 90s, triumphed in Steve Jobs’ return, and yet still kept my old Apple IIGS (my first computer) alive and intact through emulation. (The actual machine is still in my parents’ basement.)

Though Apple has done a number of things to piss me off lately, I’m still a firm believer in most of their products, and I’ll continue to buy a lot of them. However, it’s become clear to me in the last few months that the Mac, as I know it, may not be around for much longer. Despite strong sales, I am convinced that the Mac line is headed for decline, and perhaps even discontinuation. This all becomes very clear when you take a step back and acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths.

1. 90% of the public is not smart enough to use a full PC and never will be. (But tablets are perfect.)

I’ve been helping people with their computers since I was 10 years old. In that time, computers have evolved a lot, but the average user has not. Files get saved everywhere and lost. Hard drives fill up undetected. Spyware and crapware get installed willy-nilly. People’s computers grind to a halt due to poor maintenance and they either take them in for service or replace them. These people do not know what they’re doing.

And honestly, they don’t need to. Nowadays, whether at work or at home, people require literally 3 apps: a web browser, iTunes and Microsoft Office. That’s it. Occasionally they dip their toes into light creative apps like Apple’s iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband, but that’s pretty much it. The vast majority of computing is done in those 3 apps, and for most people, it’s all they’ll ever need. And these days, all of those tasks can be done more casually with an iPad. With the advent of cloud storage (which is pretty neat — now a house fire won’t wipe out decades of family photos, or your music collection), there’s no longer even a need to buy a hard drive. Which is good, because most people still don’t know the difference between a hard drive and RAM.

Tablets aren’t QUITE there yet, but they’re moving fast, and in 2 years they will completely replace the need for a PC for this 90%. The final hurdle for the tablet and phone is that they need to connect more easily to peripherals: an external display, a keyboard (doable now, but kind of a pain), a game controller, a printer, and a or scanner. And that’s it.

2. The Mac has stagnated. (And so has the PC.)

I just installed Mac OS X Lion. It’s the second major OS release from Apple in 3 years. During that time we’ve seen iOS (and its Windows-esque clone, Android) become a dominant, epoch-making force, attracting the best developers and designers from both inside the major computing companies and from the world in general. In a VERY short amount of time, these portable devices have gone from toys to being as useful as an everyday computer. Mac OS, however, has stayed pretty much the same. The major new features have been restricted to under-the-hood retoolings and minor interface features cribbed from iOS. Lion is a nice little upgrade, but from the end user’s perspective, decidedly no big deal. I could say the same about Snow Leopard.

It’s not just the operating system. Microsoft Office has added virtually no new relevant features since its 2008 version. Toast Titanium, that stalwart of disc burning on the Mac, was rewritten and is now so buggy it’s unusable (but also added no new features). Garageband and iPhoto are pretty much the same from the last version, and the new iPad version of Garageband is WAY better than the desktop version. Shareware and freeware, once the bringer of new ideas, are now predominantly iOS-like apps or widgets for various web sites, or ports of games from other platforms. On the Windows side, better backwards compatibility means that things move even slower.

On the hardware side, we’ve squeezed more cores on a CPU, but the clock speed has barely budged in the last 5 years. My 8-core 2008 Mac Pro is, according to various benchmarks, about 90% of the speed of an 8-core 2011 Mac Pro. That never used to happen. I recently upgraded my video card (those have also barely changed in the last couple years), added more RAM and a USB 3.0 card, and I’m pretty much golden. Laptops have benefitted from recent redesigns that make the motherboard, RAM and CPU all draw less power and keep cooler, but increasingly, their power is hard to tell apart from that of a workstation. And since those have barely changed at all, it’s pretty easy to conclude that their power is about to stabilize as well.

PCs have now been around for 30 years, and people are running out of new tricks, and in some cases have painted themselves into design dead-ends. The PC has become settled technology, and innovation has moved to phones and tablets. As people become more reliant on those and less reliant on full computers, we will see fewer and fewer changes going forward.

3. Mac OS X and Windows 7 are now so similar that they’re interchangeable.

The Mac vs PC debate has been going on for a majority of my lifetime. In years past, there were a lot of differences to quibble about — the two were vastly different computing platforms. Today, aside from a few minor interface differences, the two are almost completely identical. They run on the same hardware, have largely the same (or similar) software, do almost entirely the same things. Mac defenders used to say that their platform was better for video, or better for desktop publishing, and they’d be right. Today? It really doesn’t matter at all.

Windows, on the other hand, still has support for things that Apple has refused to budge on (USB 3.0, Blu-ray), and oodles of niche technology that nobody ever ported to the Mac with any real success. As everyday computing tasks slowly transition to tablets and phones, these niche technologies and pro-level creative apps will be the only reason to use a full computer.

—-

Now, my immediate impetus to switch to Windows is due to the fact that a good portion of my work — video processing and Blu-ray — require niche technology and must be done in Windows. Up until this point, I’ve been using a combination of VMWare and dual-booting to bridge the gap between Mac and PC, but now that Final Cut Pro has been reduced to hobbyist software, there’s virtually no reason to keep using the Mac side of things (and switching my configuration to 100% Windows would save me loads of time). Adobe will let me switch my newly bought Creative Suite bundle to Windows if I call them, I’ll re-buy Microsoft Office, switch my e-mail client to Thunderbird, and I’m pretty much intact.

But at this point I can’t even recommend a Mac to everyday computer users. Apple has just reminded me (with Final Cut Pro) that they are more than willing to cut off a product line with a devoted fan base in order to go where the money — and the future — is. Steve Jobs himself has already said that the era of the PC is dwindling, and already Macs make up a small and shrinking part of Apple’s bottom line. Soon, the investments in the platform will stop, the product line will shrink, and then it will disappear. The fanboys will scream and cry, and then move on. And Apple will keep making money. It happened with the Apple II, it happened with Mac OS 9, it happened with Final Cut Studio. It’s happened with each successive generation of software that no longer works on years-old computers. Mac OS Lion, with its full-screen apps and Launchpad, has started the slow process of nudging Mac users towards iOS. At some point, they’ll become “one platform.” Given where the innovation is happening, the profits are being made, and where Apple has its distinction, which of the two platforms will that look like?

I give the Mac platform another 5 years.

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Final Cut Pro X is not ready. But it’s the future.

This week, Apple released their long-awaited major upgrade to Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Pro X.

For those who don’t live in the professional video world, Final Cut Pro was Apple’s surprise entrance into the world of pro video editing software back in the late 90s, and combined with the new, cheap DV camcorders, it slowly took over the world. Now, over half of the world’s film and video content is edited with Final Cut. Personally, I’ve been using it since v1.1, and it was the gateway to my first real job at Central Park Media. It’s a program I still use almost every day.

It’s a great program, and it’s an institution for a reason. Like Photoshop, it does practically everything that a video professional needs (though not always well). Once you know the program, you establish what feels like a mind-meld with it. It becomes an appendage. Unfortunately, both the worlds of video and the Mac have changed a lot in the 13 years it’s been on the planet, and it was getting more than a bit creaky in its old age. Much of its code base was still written for Mac OS 9. It couldn’t access more than 4 GB of RAM (which isn’t that much when you’re dealing with HD video), and often locked up or unexpectedly quit.


And so, enter Apple’s new Final Cut Pro X. It’s really not even Final Cut Pro anymore. It’s been completely rewritten from scratch and reimagined — using roots from Apple’s consumer iMovie. It’s a great, innovative new program. It completely re-invents how a non-linear editing program works, and the changes in workflow and the way the timeline works is already making me a better editor. It essentially takes the faux-physical “management of clips” away from the process, leaving the editor to just concentrate on flow and feel — their actual job. It directly integrates color correction and other standard correction tasks.

But all you need to do is search Twitter for #FCPX and you’ll pretty much see nothing but frothing at the mouth about how much people hate it, and how everyone will switch to AVID (the other, older, major editor on the market).

Part of this is the fact that Editors hate change. Most editors are, surprisingly, not particularly technical people, and hate learning new software. Once they know their tools, they want to use their tools and that’s it. I knew video editors who were still insisting on using their ancient Amiga-based Video Toasters well into the 2000s.

But this is also a pretty interesting case study on consumer behavior. What is frustrating and terrifying so many people about FCPX isn’t that it’s incomplete (though it is), or that it’s vastly different than its predecessors and competitors (though it REALLY is). What’s freaking people out is that this is NOT Final Cut Pro. It doesn’t even read old Final Cut Pro files. Apple should have given this a new name and called it a 1.0 release, because that’s what it is — a 1.0 release of a brand new product.

That product is the future of video editing. It’s also not really done yet — it’s pretty stable, but missing quite a few key features that professionals rely on. I’d liken it to the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. The latter was clearly the future, with vastly better underpinnings and a much improved interface. But the first few versions just weren’t there yet for many people, and it was only after a year or two of upgrades that fixed its faults, most were able to transition completely away from the old software. Now, we look back on OS9 and it seems quaint and creaky.

Adobe Photoshop is in a similar position: it’s also in dire need of a complete ground-up re-coding and re-imagining. It’s drowning in decades-old legacy code, is appallingly slow and kludgy, and has an interface that looks thoroughly grounded in the 90s. But if Adobe’s next version looked and felt completely different, dropped vector support, and wouldn’t look at .PSD files, its users would be mutinous. By positioning Final Cut Pro X as an upgrade (or what looks like an upgrade), its users feel boxed in a corner, required to upgrade even if the new software isn’t what they’re looking for.

That said, I don’t know anyone that was all that happy with Mac OS X 10.0 and with Final Cut X in its current form, I’m left wanting in the following areas:

– There is virtually no integration with Motion. There’s no way to send a clip to a new Motion timeline easily, and definitely no way to get an effect you made in Motion back into FCP. You have to go through the file browser. Seriously?!

– There are very limited video filters. This wouldn’t be such a big deal normally, but major things, things that are available in Motion, are not available in Final Cut. Things like Gamma, levels, YUV adjust, blur, you name it. The only way to get these effects is to go through Motion, which is a huge hassle. (see above.)

– The browser for text effects and generators are so mired in prefab Apple templates that no professional would ever use, that it takes some getting used to before you realize that everything is customizable, and you actually do have quite a bit of control. But the templates are a waste of space.

– Multicam is missing, as many have noted. This is basically essential to cutting multicamera shows, and its absence will be a dealbreaker to anyone who deals with timecode-sync’ed video for a living.

– Poor to no 3rd party video device support. This means that unless you’re using DV or HDV, you’re stuck with capturing and printing to tape with the software that came with your card.

– There’s NO WAY TO HAVE MULTIPLE TIMELINES, spread out on a timeline, or otherwise break free of the singular approach Apple has dictated we edit in.

– All movie files, if you apply any enhancements to them whatsoever, are quietly copied into the project folder in the root of whatever hard drive you’ve chosen for the project. There is no way to turn this off. These are GIGANTIC files!!

– No import/export of timelines, even from old FCP. (iMovie doesn’t count.)

There are many great innovations in this app (the magnetic timeline is very cool), but it does inherit a lot of iMovie’s hand-holding, and frankly, many professionals would be horribly frustrated by that. Once Apple adds back in a lot of the features that it didn’t get to rebuilding yet, and smooths out some interface issues, we will have a winner. Right now, it’s a gawky adolescent.

Home Theater PCs

I love my home theater PC. After a rocky start, the software has finally matured to the point where it’s an easy to throw one together out of a stock Windows box. If you can get a tiny one with a built-in Blu-ray player and a remote control (like, say, this one here), all you need to add is a USB TV tuner and a few pieces of mostly-free software.

Here is what I recommend for anyone wanting to use their PC with their TV.

  • Latest video card drivers and latest version of Flash. They make a huge difference.
  • Windows 7 x64 Home Premium. Comes with the amazing Windows Media Center, which is so good it’s shocking that it’s free. Netflix is now baked-in.
  • Arcsoft TotalMedia Theatre. Unfortunately it’s $100, but it’s by far the best blu-ray software out there, and it integrates nicely with Media Center.
  • Hulu Desktop. Free, authorized software with which you can watch pretty much everything on Hulu with a remote control. Doesn’t always play smoothly, but the latest Flash upgrades fixed that for me. Integrates with Windows Media Center with the freeware Hulu Desktop Integration.
  • Shark007 Codec Packs for WIndows 7 (with x64 components). It’s a pain in the butt to keep this updated, but it’s the best way of maintaining compatibility with every wacky video format under the sun.
  • Media Control x64. This extension for Media Center allows you to switch audio and subtitle tracks when playing back files. Doesn’t always work properly, but still nice to have.
  • Amazon Unbox Video Player. Automatically downloads your new Amazon VOD purchases and puts them in a place accessible by Media Center. Unfortunately, there’s no good remote control interface for their new Amazon Prime subscription streaming service.
  • iTunes. I’m sure you’ll need it at some point. There is a program that will integrate it with Media Center, but it looks like it hasn’t been updated for Windows 7 and it costs money, so I haven’t tried it.
  • Boxee software. For a bunch of other websites that don’t have remote control interfaces, and a few stray video formats that Shark007 doesn’t support, most of them will work with Boxee. You can launch it from Media Center with Boxee Media Center Integration.
  • Mobile Mouse client. Most of the time you won’t need to use a mouse or keyboard from your couch. I do it rarely enough that it’s not worth fussing with the limited range of a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse unit. Instead, with this installed and an iPhone app, you can VERY comfortably just use your iPhone/iPod Touch over WiFi.
  • DVDFab Passkey Lite. A free solution to break region codes for both DVD and Blu-ray. (It also breaks copy protection, but you won’t take advantage of that, will you? 😉
  • This should be all most people need. There are a few other add-ons I haven’t yet tried out (most notably MCE Buddy, which converts your recorded TV into useful formats and removes commercials), and quite a few I tried and couldn’t get to work. But after 3 years I think I finally have a pretty solid setup. Hope someone found this useful.

    Microsoft has apparently stopped development on Media Center for Windows 7 because few people use it. That’s a real shame. Even after all this time and all the set-top boxes that have been developed, my Home Theater PC is still the only machine that can play literally everything. I spent a lot of money on it, and I don’t regret it for a second.

    The Slow Process of Legalization

    In my younger days, I used to be a pirate. A hardcore pirate, in fact. My Bittorrent client would run for weeks at a time, gobbling up software, video games, movies and music. I was constantly burning copies for my friends, chipping their XBoxes, installing their software. I was “that guy” that people talked to whenever they wanted to see something, or had some media-related desire they couldn’t afford or didn’t want to pay for.

    It felt pretty good to be that guy. It was a point of pride for so many people to depend on me. And I never felt particularly bad about it, either — after all, I couldn’t afford most of the stuff I was pirating, and would likely never pay for it even if I could. Media, to me, was disposable. The movies I really loved, I still bought, but truthfully, I purchased precious little other media.

    It’s hard to say when things changed for me. Maybe it was a combination of seeing my friends lose their jobs en masse when the anime industry imploded, and remembering my roots as a collector. Slowly, over a period of years, I began to get more and more into collecting, and more and more interested in replacing my illegally gotten media riches with legal copies. Around the same time, DVDs started plummeting in price, making the purchase of these things a feasible option.

    Cut to today, several years later, and I am now almost entirely “square”, as far as I can tell. I’ve bought so many DVDs and Blu-rays I can’t even afford the space to keep their cases around anymore. I didn’t exactly go through my MP3s and try to tell which I had acquired legally and which I hadn’t (there’s really no way to do that), but I buy pretty much every new song I acquire, if it’s available from iTunes or Amazon. I still have a pile of movies I ripped off of Netflix rentals years ago, but I consider those time-shifted rentals, and I’ll only watch them once before deciding if I want to buy them and then they get trashed. I also maintain a (gigantic) stash of anime that will probably never be available legally (but if they do come out, the “buy it or trash it” rule applies). I don’t play many video games, but I legally buy downloads from XBox Live these days.

    That just leaves software. The real marvel, in my opinion, is how much software has been taken over by free/open source software. There was once a time where 75-90% of the stuff I used everyday was commercial stuff that I had to either buy or pirate. Now, it’s probably less than 10%, and if my standards were lower, it’d be even less.

    It seems like nearly every piece of must-have software of yesteryear can now be replaced by something free or very very cheap. I’ve replaced Photoshop with the speedy and lightweight Pixelmator ($30!), legally bought Office for Mac (though I have OpenOffice.org on the laptop), and just paid to update to the 2011 version of iPhoto. CeltX for screenwriting, Audacity for light audio editing, iTunes for music.

    But honestly, I barely had to spend much money at all. Must-have software like web browsers? FTP and IM clients? Video players and codecs? 100% free. Very nerdy things, like video compression, are now more or less owned by open-source solutions, which are often better than their commercial counterparts — some of which often cost in the thousands of dollars.

    In fact, the only place where Open Source really falls down is in pro-level creative development. Video editing and compositing (Final Cut Pro/AVID/Adobe Premiere, Motion and After Effects), desktop publishing (Adobe InDesign), audio and music editing (ProTools/Logic/Live) and 3D rendering (Maya, etc.). For the foreseeable future, all of these things will continue to require giant, expensive software packages that cost more than most PCs.

    I suppose that’s fair. Shelling out $3,000 for Blu-ray authoring software last year almost killed me, but using it professionally, it’s made me enough money to be well worth the investment. And that’s precisely what professional software should be, an investment.

    But for the rest of us, who don’t do magazine layouts or video editing, who mostly just use PCs to browse the web, for e-mail, and an occasional paper or letter, there is simply no need to pirate anything. The free software is more than good enough. DVDs and BDs are cheap as hell. Music is still around 99¢ a track, and there are lots of ways to watch a stockpile of stuff without copying it. And now, free of all the hacks and cracks and ways around, I feel a huge sense of relief.

    Piracy usually seems like the easy, lasy option, but the truth is that it’s never been easier to not be a pirate. And I gotta admit, it feels pretty good to live cleanly — a sense of satisfaction akin to quitting smoking or losing weight. But to those who aren’t ready to go 100% legit like I did, it’s hard to judge them too harshly. I was there once, I get it. But I think that, in the back of every pirate’s head, they know what they should do. But like smoking and power-eating, it can be a really really hard habit to break.

    The Trouble With Blu-ray

    As a consumer, I love Blu-ray. It’s pretty much the best thing a media packrat like me could ever have. The video quality is so good, any further improvement requires a wall-sized screen to even be visible. The audio formats, DTS-Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, are literally capable of quality beyond the limits of human hearing. I will never need to upgrade most of the movies I buy on Blu-ray ever again, as the technology has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

    However, as a professional, I freaking hate Blu-ray. It’s the worst-implemented, most poorly thought-out, unnecessarily confusing professional video specification ever invented, clearly the product of being rushed out the door in order to compete with HD-DVD. The format was designed to be as future-proof as possible, featuring layers of interactivity and flexibility, almost none of which even work.

    Here are just a few things that bother me:

  • Java-based menus – When the formats were just being unveiled, Java sounded pretty damn good. Unlike DVD menus (and HD-DVD menus, which weren’t much different), Java offered the promise of full interactivity and even gaming. Java (not to be confused with the web language Javascript) is a C-based programming language that was once really exciting because it’s never compiled into machine language. It stays human-readable, and is interpreted into computer commands as it’s being run. This has the benefit of being platform-agnostic; you can switch processors, architectures, or even generations of technology and still expect pretty much the same result. And because it was a full programming language (rather than a limited menu mark-up language), you could make it do almost anything. At least, in theory.

    The first problem with Java is that it’s SLOW AS BALLS. The second problem is that it’s an actual programming language, and if you really want to take advantage of it you need to hire an actual programmer. This is well outside the wheelhouse of most home video companies, and in terms of what most discs need to do, ridiculous overkill. Most discs require a fairly standard, similarly structured menu and little else. Well, in order to make these, an authoring program has to give you a design interface to map out the disc and its interface, and then attempt to approximate what you did in Java. The whole process is horrifyingly buggy, and the result is, frankly, not great. Meanwhile, on the high-end studio side of things, only a few discs have managed to scrape together barely-usable and dog-slow games and interactive features. Java sure seemed like a great idea at the time, but in retrospect it was a gigantic mistake.

  • It Can’t Render Text – This one is a pisser, because it’s actually part of the Blu-ray spec, and one of the most basic things a “real programming language” like Java can do. Technically, a menu can render text on-the-fly, or text can be overlaid onto video. This would’ve enabled live on-screen chats, additional subtitle tracks and annotation, and potentially much more. Unfortunately, no fonts are included in the player specification, so in order to get the disc to draw text, you’d need to license and bundle a font on the disc itself — subjecting the publisher to an additional licensing fee. Beyond that, the players themselves are simply bad at it! Text looks sloppy, jaggy, poorly spaced and kerned. It’s simply not acceptable looking, and changes from player to player. For subtitles and other text-heavy features, Blu-ray authors are forced to render everything as graphics. Just like with DVD.
  • It Can’t Stream Video – Perhaps the most galling part about this is that they actually updated the spec and pushed this as a new player feature called BDLive. And perhaps the funniest thing about this is that some of the major Hollywood studios are still trying to pretend it works. Rather than use any of the now-ubiquitous technology now being used by YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and everyone else to flawlessly beam HD video around the net, the Blu-ray guys had to reinvent the wheel by jamming together their oddly incompatible video format specs with an outdated internet transmission format, and then not giving the players enough RAM to smooth out the playback of streamed HD video. The result is so choppy and terrible looking that it’s unplayable. Don’t believe me? Unlock one of the “free streaming movies” that came with the Scott Pilgrim BD and see if the glitch every 5 seconds doesn’t make you want to put an axe through the TV. But hey, at least you had to spend 15 minutes downloading an update before you could play the disc, right?
  • It Can’t Make Managed Copies – One of the early promises of BD was that you could easily pop it into a “Managed Copy”-ready set-top box or piece of software, and after a few minutes of grinding, it would spit out your movie in any number of different compatible formats, for portable devices or even as a standard DVD. The problem was, not only was this feature never finished, it was never even developed. Nobody could decide on a method to maintain copy protection for the transcoded content, Apple (maker of the world’s most popular media players) refused to play along with the insanity that is Blu-ray, and so the project languished. That didn’t stop the Blu-ray committee from making authors buy a uniquely generated ID code for every BD they made (which had to be bought from a single company in the USA), and add them to the disc itself, as well as a URL to your “managed copy server” that you were responsible for building and maintaining. There was even a point last year where they simply refused to replicate the discs if you didn’t go to all that trouble.

    Never mind that there isn’t, and never has been, any such thing as a “managed copy server” — they were never invented. Nor was any player that would talk to one, or read the ID code. But if you were a BD publisher, no matter how small, you had to play ball and buy the stupid ID code, in the belief that SOMEDAY managed copy might exist. The committee finally dropped the whole asinine idea when the one company that issued the numbers in North America filed for bankruptcy and closed their doors. Last I heard, the whole “managed copy” thing is now dead, and everyone’s just including a regular DVD with their Blu-rays, which is a lot easier for everyone.

  • And those are just the published features that don’t work. How about all the little quirks and bugs we have to work around? Or the fact that, even 3 years into the format’s maturity we still don’t have a BD authoring program with a decent interface? Or its half-assed support of standard-def extra features? I love the performance and storage of Blu-ray, but my god, this format is just BROKEN.

    How to piss off an anime fan

    Explain to him (or her) that, while non-standard, it is perfectly valid to romanize the name “Naruto” as “Nalto”. Their favorite character, actually, is named Nalto Üzmacky, and the girl in his group is named Sacla.

    Said anime fan may bleed from their extremities from the effort put forth in their resulting argument. Hilarity!

    Ladies and gentlemen, the speaker of the house.

    I can’t decide if I think this is amusing or not. Nancy Pelosi just rick-rolled. I’m not a fan of Nancy Pelosi (I regard her as the same sort of self-important melodramatic middle aged woman that usually gets her self-esteem from teaching 3rd graders), but honestly, if anyone can still get an image boost from participating in an ancient, played-out meme, it’s a congressional baby boomer. (And yes, I think there’s a 17-year-old page behind this.)