How Apple’s new motion graphics program may — or may not — change things

By Kevin Schmitt

Like many of you, I spent the better part of this last week constantly refreshing my various browser window in the hopes of catching the absolute latest news coming out of Vegas (insert obligatory «baby!»), where NAB just closed up shop until this time next year. Of course, I don’t have to remind anyone who was grabbing the (very) early headlines; Apple was quite busy providing whiz-bang fireworks on what is usually a traditional day of rest. The scene stealer of the day was the more or less unexpected announcement of Motion, Apple’s forthcoming (and presumably, by some, After Effects-killing) motion graphics program. But does the birth of Motion really mean After Effects is on its way out of Mac-land? After almost a week of thinking about it, I have to say I’m of two minds about what may play out.

Now, I have to admit that it’s a weird feeling to experience simultaneous surges of excitement and confusion, but the news about Motion sure did that to me. On the one hand, I have to blurt out that everything I’ve heard about and seen of Motion paints it as a «gotta-have» application. There are plenty of details, fine print and other mouth-watering tidbits available at Apple’s Motion page if you’re not up to speed on the specifics. Motion looks to be chock full of all the great things that have endeared Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro to an ever-growing user base, all packaged up into a nifty-looking, largely real-time motion graphics app with that signature soft, chewy center. And at only $299, it’s probably already at the aforementioned gotta-have level based on price alone. So given Apple’s track record of creating great software (not just in the Pro space but with the iApps as well), I have no reason at all to to doubt that Motion will be very worthy of a place in that particular lineup, and I’ll happily be plunking down three Benjamins to get in on the action once Motion ships this summer (whenever that actually ends up being).

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But on the other hand, Motion’s announcement also left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, one which hasn’t yet gone away even as I think more about what it all means. Let me explain: Mac users are the beneficiaries of a relative embarrassment of riches of late with regards to the higher end of the digital content creation spectrum. After Effects has been around on the Mac for a long time, and has always been excellent, but in recent years companies like Discreet and Alias have been bringing their offerings to the Mac party as well. I’m not fooling myself, though — I realize that Windows users still have more choices (Digital Fusion, Maya Unlimited, 3DS Max, etc.) in the DCC space. But my point is that one doesn’t have to go back very far at all to remember a much less hospitable time for high-end creative software on the Mac, and I, for one, don’t particularly want to see a return to the bad old days of the Mac being the proverbial plague for developers to avoid. Mac OS X is a serious player of an OS, and the G5 is a serious player of a workstation, which should, in theory, make the Mac an attractive target for high-end creative software developers. So what’s really going to happen with Motion’s arrival? I’d be misrepresenting the extent of my knowledge if I tried to play know-it-all here, but I have what I consider to be two reasonable scenarios that could play themselves out in the coming months and/or years:

Scenario 1: The Domino Effect

For the purposes of this scenario, let’s assume the worst about Adobe; namely, that they’re feeling spurned by Apple and that they’re looking for any excuse to standardize as much of their codebase as possible on Windows. There have been enough indications over the last year or so to at least lend some credence to that assumption, from the whole «PC Preferred» debacle to Premiere and FrameMaker being dropped to Encore DVD being written from the ground up a Windows XP-only product. If I’m Adobe, and I’m looking at Apple releasing a competing product that is at a price point way below my product and is quite likely to cannibalize future sales, then bam! There’s my excuse. I may be thinking of making the next full version of After Effects XP-only. And if I’m me, which I am, I don’t like that prospect very much. Why? Because it’s hard to tell where the line will be drawn. Does Adobe decide that Apple has it in for them, and that it’s just a matter of time before Apple offers it’s own versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign? Adobe might be inclined to let the current CS versions of those products languish indefinitely while development continues unabated on the same programs over on the Windows side. That may be pushing things too far, so let me climb back up that particular slippery slope and just leave it at «Adobe takes their After Effects ball and goes home» for the moment.

From there, things really start to snowball. For the sake of argument, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of someone like Discreet. I have absolutely no information on the relative success or failure of a product like Combustion 3 on the Mac, so I don’t have any «real» data to work from here. But bear with me here: I’m Discreet, and I’ve seen Adobe drop the Mac version of After Effects. I may actually see an increase in Combustion sales, at least in the short term, from users that have invested in the Mac platform and are looking for an established and mature product. Now that After Effects is out of the picture, I may be getting looks I may otherwise not be getting. But in the long run, I’ve got to look at the big picture. Motion is out there, and $700 less than my product, and likely getting more capable with every update. Can I afford to slash the price? How many sales do I have to lose before it’s not worth it to keep the Mac version alive? It’s not very hard to see a scenario where Combustion goes Windows-only as well.

And for companies like Alias or NewTek, watching that scenario unfold is undoubtedly going to lead to questions. Why would I continue to support (or bring to OS X for the first time) Product X when Apple may come along with their own version and at a much lower price point? Why bother, when Mac development is sometimes seen as risky even without Apple’s products? Granted, this is all worst-case stuff, because I’m making the rather large assumption that nobody wants to compete, ever, if Apple’s going to be a player. But Apple is the 800-lb. gorilla in this case, because it’s their hardware, their OS, and they’ve got a growing track record of creating software to take advantage of both. So while things could get ugly real quick, I’d rather look at the bright side of things, which brings me to:

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Scenario 2: The rising tide lifts all boats

Motion certainly looks cool out of the gate, and while there are some deficiencies (lack of 3D space being a glaring one), I imagine that we’re not talking product stagnation a la Keynote or anything here. Motion will (or, at least, should) get better with age. But the truth of the matter is that Apple is a little late to the party here. Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro took off not only because they were good products (which certainly helped), but they were also in the right place at the right time. There just weren’t a lot of other options available. Premiere 6/6.5? Please. You get the idea. I’d argue that the fact that there were any best-in-class apps on the Mac (pre-OS X, even) helped lure digital content creation software developers back to the platform. But in the case of Motion, the previously-mentioned embarrassment of riches is in play here. It’s not like there are no other choices in the motion graphics and compositing space already, and let’s face it: After Effects is most certainly not Premiere. It’s a mature product on the Mac with years of history and a loyal user base. It’s entrenched even at large studios, and it’s a cross-platform product. Combustion has similar pluses, in that it, too goes «both ways» and integrates well with its bigger siblings on the very highest end of post production. Assuming that both are currently doing reasonably well on OS X at the moment, I’m inclined to believe that neither is going anywhere soon, regardless of Motion.

So here’s the gist of this scenario: Motion forces everyone else to (gasp!) innovate. In addition to FCP and DVDSP, Motion is seen as potentially another reason for users to invest in the Mac platform, and the players who are already there would conceivably be in a position to benefit should they choose to compete. Apple is taking the time and effort to show developers what their hardware and OS is capable of by producing their own software, and rather than saying «nanny nanny boo boo» and «deal with this, punks,» they also provide a level playing field by offering FREE development tools to anyone who wants to do the same thing. Look at NewTek, for example. They’ve announced recently that they are migrating their OS X version of LightWave over to Xcode for future releases, which should make LightWave highly optimized for the Mac. Even Adobe’s CEO recently pointed to how Mac sales are generally still very strong, and as they just announced a new version of After Effects for Pete’s sake, there’s no real reason to believe that they won’t keep up in order to preserve that large chunk of profit. And that’s without even looking at how well the Mac versions of the CS apps are doing, which I’m sure are making a healthy handful of coin for Adobe.

Ultimately, I hope the competition scenario wins out, and I think it will. After all, these companies have to compete somewhere, and I’d rather be in a position of going up against Apple than Microsoft for a number of reasons. Ultimately, though, Apple’s problem with software in general is that they’re in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. They’re the ones out in front, writing best-in-class software that seamlessly integrates with their other apps (as well as Mac OS X). They’re the ones demonstrating that the Apple hardware and OS combination is capable of a great many remarkable things. But they’re also the ones who may, if things go horribly wrong, be needlessly marginalizing the Mac platform in the process. If that happens, the Mac could eventually turn into what is ostensibly a turnkey solution where Apple software reigns supreme and a handful of shareware developers churn out workflow enhancements and other cool utilities that many of us have grown to love, but don’t exactly sustain a platform.

As usual, we’re going to have to wait and see what happens here. But if past is truly prologue, regardless of what effect Motion will eventually have on the future of digital content creation on the Mac, it’s virtually guaranteed to be an interesting ride. After all, this is Apple we’re talking about here, so it’s always a good idea to stay tuned.