Waves of Operating Systems and what it tells us about NLE evolution

We were thinking about the evolution of computers over dinner – the fact that we’re both reading the Steve Jobs biography right now might have something to do with it – and I realized there were parallels between the evolution of the “PC” and the evolution of the NLE.

The first iteration of computer were mainframes. Very specialized and expensive devices, used only by highly skilled and trained technicians, who’s primary job was as the servant of the machine that would do work for others.

Skip forward a couple of years to the personal computer. Largely disliked but functional in a business environment with an IT support staff. “Learning the computer” was not most people’s favorite task, although there were some that relished the control being able to ‘tinker’ with settings gave them. Most people just wanted a computer to “just work”, but with a little effort most people could get them to do mostly what they wanted.

And now we’re heading for a computer experience more like an appliance. That was Steve Job’s apparent goal (according to his Biography) and is definitely the direction that Lion and Mountain Lion are taking: much more like the iOS experience than the classic desktop. And I think overall that’s a good thing for the vast majority of users: people like my mother, my older, non-industry friends, and so on.

This progression is pretty consistent, whether we’re talking about the evolution of computer operating systems, motor vehicles or any other technological innovation. To start with you need a lot of specialized skills that kept most people “outside”. Over time it becomes easier and easier for average people to use computers, drive, make music (iPad GarageBand comes to mind), and much more.

And yes, edit video. I think it’s obvious the same trend is happening with editing technology. We’ve gone from a time when the only installation was an expensive one. Through more reasonably desktop software, which stayed as the status quo for many years, gaining features in an ever-changing landscape, both technological and business. (I remain ever grateful to John Buck for Timelines 2, his history of the 1990’s and the advent of digital non-linear editing up to around 2000.)

At each step exponentially more people have been able to afford and start using video editing technology. In the era I first joined the digital NLE world – 1994 with a Media 100 – that company was heading for some 50,000 customers; Avid had significantly more with Media Composer, but these tools were universally expensive.

By the end of 2010, Apple had some 1.4 million unique registrations/2 million seats (but no breakdown of how many were FCP 1-7, FC Express, Motion, Soundtrack Pro, or Compressor direct sales before these were bundled in the Studio). By extrapolation from the SCRI percentages in professional markets, Media Composer could have as many as  300,000 seats or it could be under 100,000. It’s very hard to get an accurate feel on Media Composer seats.

Whereas, Premiere Pro is probably installed as many times (or more) than Final Cut Pro 7, but actual active users is also hard to lock down. Add in a few hundred thousand for Sony Vegas (at least) and more users out there using Edius and it’s a lot of people. And my intuition is that Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has probably sold more than 100,00o units to date (and possibly double that – estimate based largely on Apple’s NAB 2012 announcement that FCP X had outsold FCP 7 seats to that point.)

Now, even allowing for the overlaps that occur because many people own or use more than one NLE that’s a lot of people using professional non-linear editing tools. We know that they’re not all involved in film and TV production (given the official figure is 25,500 people employed as “editors” in the U.S. film and TV market, but I’d say at least four times that number use very similar techniques).

Using the 2 million figure and assuming that everyone who owns Final Cut Pro 1-7 and associated apps also owns Premiere Pro because they purchase the Production Studio to get Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects, then that still means that more and more people are adopting the tools, as they’ve become more accessible, particularly as the acquisition gear has increased in quality as it has decreased in price.

Editing technology that does more and more for the user or on the user’s behalf, will be the future, as the computer operating system and motor vehicle worlds have shown. History also tells us that there are people who love to tinker with the engine of a car or tweak their computer hardware and operating system to suit their needs better. That’s fine, but the tinkers should realize they’re part of the original vanguard, not part of the future, whatever that brings.

9 replies on “Waves of Operating Systems and what it tells us about NLE evolution”

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  1. As for the complaint by so-called professionals that when every Tom, Dick and Harry can edit, they’ll hang up a shingle and the market will go downhill, as will quality of the product out there. Let’s reflect on accounting. So many accounting apps around, and use business owners still hire professionals, experience accountants. Those who’d never hire a true professional in the first place will do it on their own or have their niece in Jr. High do it. Professionals have nothing to worry about. Professional colorists have no diminished in number since Apple gave Color to us for no additional cost (as many posts claimed would happen). There are more accountants now, making more money, and doing good work. There are more editors now doing more work, and doing good work. The cream rises to the top, as they say. I see it, as a professional, that my turnaround time will get quicker, I spend more time as a creative and less as a technician, and produce a better quality product. Anyone who complains that technology will ruin everything, or has degraded everything, well, next time you’re having a medical emergency, call someone with a horse to take you to the hospital.

  2. I think you are making some very lucid points. Like everything there is good and bad to this automatisation of software and motor engines. Have you read “The Case for Working with Your Hands” by Matthew Crawford? He makes a very powerful argument about the dangers of disconnecting from the things we use and skills (like money) being place in the hand of only a few elites.


  3. Correct Ben, but, has happened in the print/design industry, the cream may well take longer to rise to the top!

    1. In the sense that there’s “more milk” to rise from, it could take longer. OTOH, the tools/channels to get there on your own are also new to this generation.

      1. .. which I think helps my point. The ‘Democratisation’ or should I say the ‘Amaturisation’ of the industry will follow the print industry model; everyone can design so everything, generally speaking, will be devalued. Welcome to mediocrity folks! 🙂

        1. That’s where I disagree. I see much more creative print work now than 20 years ago. There are more people making a living in print than ever before. Ditto music/audio. video will got the same way – more people making a decent living doing what they love than ever before.

          And less mediocrity.

          1. It must be different that side of the pond. Over here I still see great work but, not as often as you did 20 years ago. I see more mediocrity not less. I see more mediocre people making more mediocre decisions about what kind of design they want. Been in this game three decades and I see more choice, but less quality. 🙂

  4. There’s a lot of mediocrity, but it’s mostly among the “old media” who are simply pushing budgets down without getting creative. Where there’s new and interesting work done is outside the old vanguard where people never bought into the restricted formats.

    1. Uuuummmmhh 🙂

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