Avid Leaves Mac on the Cutting Room Floor

NAB is always a forum for major announcements and surprising releases, but few announcements have created as big a stir in the broadcast and film communities as this year’s statements by Avid, Incorporated. Though the company’s claims are open to interpretation, one message came through loud and clear: Avid’s future on the Mac platform is limited, and further releases will be for the Windows NT operating system only.

Avid’s official statement is that "the Macintosh platform continues to be an important part of our strategy" and says that they will continue Mac development and support through release 8.0 of MediaComposer later this year. After that, the company claims, they will have to see what the market dictates. This short-term planning, they say, is perfectly normal.

The word from the show floor was quite a bit different, with many Avid spokespeople and engineers stating that Mac development will cease after MediaComposer 8.0, though the company will continue to offer technical support and bug fixes. However, the company has neglected to say whether or not they will continue to sell Mac-based systems.

The absence of a solid statement from the company’s upper management makes it clear that, even if they have no immediate plans to cancel Mac development, Avid’s future on the Mac is on very shaky ground.

The explanations for this suddenly unsure footing vary greatly. Initially, it was reported on MacWeek.com that strained relations between Apple and Avid had spurred Avid’s departure, though there is little official word from either company. And, though it’s easy to speculate that Avid may have been pressured by stockholders Microsoft and Intel, there is little to support this idea either.

Avid’s official statement is that Windows is required for high-end finishing systems such as the company’s Avid Symphony and SoftImage|DS. Many of Avid’s statements cite Mac technical weaknesses and hardware limitations as the reason for the shift to NT. The recent focus on multiple, uncompressed D1 video streams is cited as the major impetus for NT’s horsepower.

The question of the Macintosh’s hardware viability, though, is easily debatable. Most of the Mac hardware complaints center around the speed and limited number of PCI slots. Avid has already addressed the three-slot PCI limitation with its PCI Extender. Though it’s true that the Mac’s PCI slots aren’t implemented at the full 66-MHz speed defined by the PCI specification, few Windows-based machines use the full bus speed, opting for the same 33 MHz clock that Apple uses.

It is difficult to see an NT preference as much more than a "six-of-one, half-dozen-of-another" choice. Though it is true that NT’s symmetrical multiprocessing is a great advantage that Apple abandoned, NT’s true, pre-emptive multitasking is irrelevant due to Avid’s recommendation that Symphony users run no concurrent applications.

Avid has traditionally been very slow to implement new Mac OS features and upgrade its hardware to OS changes. The company’s claims that a Mac OS X rewrite would be too costly is questionable given the long history of compatibility problems following new Windows releases. It is hard to believe that Avid would expect to have an easier time keeping up with changes and updates to NT.

Whatever the reasons, the word is out, and many of Avid’s 50,000 installed users have been very vocal in their response. Ultimately, hardware questions will prove far less important to Avid’s future than user reaction.

Whether Avid ceases Mac development now, later, or not at all, editors, production supervisors and engineers have been forced to think about their options in a post-Mac/Avid world.

Darla Marasco of Van Ness Films is a postproduction supervisor who oversees up to 20 Avid bays which are used for production of nonfiction documentary episodes for series, including A&E’s Biography.

"We have no complaints with the current version of MediaComposer, so the lack of new releases isn’t such a big deal. We had the first Avid 8000 in Orange County, and today we’ve got a lot of Avid equipment. What are we going to do when it comes time to replace this hardware?"

Marasco is mostly concerned about the upkeep and technical support necessitated by moving to a new operating system. "Can my facility run 24 hours without them paging me? Right now, the Mac-based Avid is second-nature to my editors and my techs. I don’t see how I can change to a new system without my workflow breaking down," explains Marasco.

Many facilities managers are also concerned about their anciliary investments in the Mac platform. In addition to Avid, most houses have large investments in other Mac programs such as Adobe Photoshop and After Effects. The decision to switch to another platform is complicated for both producers and editors who will have to decide whether it’s worth learning a new operating system, or staying on the Mac and learning a new editing system.

Freelance editor Sonja Schenk doesn’t mind the idea of learning a new system. "I hate NT! And I’m not just being a Mac snob. File management is too difficult and clunky on NT and when you’re working with dozens of hours of footage, you spend a lot of time copying and moving files. And if something goes wrong with NT it takes much longer to fix it. With the Mac, if something goes wrong, I just fiddle around with the Extensions Manager and reboot. I can’t afford any more time than that on a deadline. And I don’t care what anyone says, Photoshop does not feel the same on NT as it does on the Mac. I’d much rather learn new software–if it’s good enough–than make the switch to NT."

Many users, though, feel the switch might make things easier. "I blame Apple for this," says editor Craig Fisher of Burlington, Vermont-based Burlington Production. "It’s been years since they did anything for the high-end user. If it turns out I can make the switch-over easily, I might not mind being on a platform with a sturdier future." The question of how to change from the Mac to NT is not an easy one. "We’re always swapping drives from bay to bay," concludes Marasco. "I worry about compatibility between the Mac and NT. When we have to move a project from a Mac bay to an NT bay, will the media be compatible? Yes, we could start a project on one bay and leave it there, but we’re really not used to working that way. There’s gonna be a lot of changes. There are a lot of unanswered questions." These include: o Will I be able to buy new Mac-based Avid hardware to replace existing equipment? o Will I be able to exchange files between Mac and NT systems? o Will I be able to easily move drives from one system to the other? o What are the technical concerns related to the NT operating system that my maintenance techs will have to learn? o How much re-training will my editors require to learn to use NT? Whether Avid answers these questions or not, many editors are already considering their options for the future. No matter what Avid does, many may go ahead and abandon the Mac to stave off future problems. Loyal users feel betrayed by both companies and want to see a show of support: six-slot, faster machines from Apple and support for those machines from Avid. If that support doesn’t come, Avid may lose a lot of users to other Mac-based editing systems, while Apple may lose a lot of users to NT.

However, by saying they can’t afford to support both platforms, Avid may very well be showing that they’re starting to feel a crunch in the industry. With the proliferation of digital video, Firewire, and desktop computers that are becoming increasingly powerful, the nonlinear editing market may be fast becoming a software-only industry. In this new model, there may be little room for turnkey systems such as Avid.

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