Mountain Lion Paves the Way for Final Cut in the Cloud

FCP in Mountain Lion

Yesterday, Apple gave the world a sneak peek at Mountain Lion, the new version of OS X due out this summer. Much like Snow Leopard was to Leopard, the changes in Mountain Lion, at least those revealed thus far, are more iterative that revolutionary. Almost every feature highlighted by Apple brings technology from iOS back to the Mac, hooking into the company’s cloud storage solution, iCloud. Here’s what John Gruber has to say about it:

I remain convinced that iCloud is exactly what Steve Jobs said it was: the cornerstone of everything Apple does for the next decade. So of course it makes sense to bring iCloud to the Mac in a big way. Simplified document storage, iMessage, Notification Center, synced Notes and Reminders — all of these things are part of iCloud. It’s all a step toward making your Mac just another device managed in your iCloud account.

I agree with Gruber, iCloud is Apple’s central product for the coming decade. With Mountain Lion, they are trying to make the computing experience, be it on a Mac, an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad, feel as seamless as possible. Document syncing, if executed properly, is the bridge between all of their products. Even, I hope, Final Cut Pro.

How Good is iCloud?

iCloud is not without its faults, but overall it is an impressive product. Mail, Contacts and Calendars, Photo Stream, backups and document syncing all fall under the iCloud moniker, so it can be confusing to grasp what it actually is. At launch, there was a lot of noise that iCloud might be a “Dropbox killer,” but since document syncing remains under-implemented by developers (even by Apple, whose iWork suite still can’t sync from iOS to Mac) the comparison never really made much sense.

I have a number of apps that sync across Dropbox, mainly text editors (many many text editors). Being able to write on my Mac, then take those documents with me has absolutely changed the way I work for the better. A lot of the posts on the site have been written in transit. But I’ve been syncing documents for years now and, well, some cruft has built up. Every app approaches Dropbox syncing differently (manual, automatic, all docs, only .txt files, subfolders, etc.) and sometimes I forget to go about the process properly. If I launch an auto-syncing app on the subway as I zip through a brief area of 3G service…oy, I don’t even want to think about it.

A few months ago, Information Architects’s iA Writer became the first text editor to enable iCloud syncing across your iPad and your Mac. They did this well before Apple offered any real recommendation of how to approach sync. iA Writer’s iCloud document sync is an order of magnitude better than any Dropbox syncing alternative on the App Store (and remember, I’ve tried just about all of them). It is fast, reliable and completely seamless. At no point have I been left to wonder whether the document I’m working on is the most up to date version. Here’s what Oliver Reichenstein, CEO of Information Architects, had to say about it back in November:

I’ve been making fun of Apple’s magical claim, but this time I concur. The iCloud technology is so far ahead of anything I have seen, and it does so much in the background without you noticing anything that it deserves the quality “magic.”

From a user’s standpoint, I couldn’t agree more. iCloud, in a word, rocks.

Final Cut in the Cloud

I believe that, someday, there will be a “Final Cut in the Cloud,” with iCloud serving as a go-between for your projects. I wrote a little bit about this back in 2009 in a post about how filmmakers could use the now defunct Google Wave. In short, editing a project file in the cloud is easy, tantamount to editing a text document. The hard part about video editing is working with high resolution media. Short of mapping the human brain, munching on video is one of the most resource-intensive uses for computers today; it’s one reason we still need Mac Pros.

The iPad 2 can handle basic video editing tasks, and I’ll bet the iPad 3 will handle even more. The trouble is that your media has to be on the iPad to edit it, and there is no sync-capability between iMovie for iOS and the Mac.1 The way that Final Cut Pro X works offers a few clues as to how sync could conceivably work in the near future.

The main innovation that Apple brought to FCP X (to the confoundment of most pro editors) was the simplification of project files and media organization. It takes some getting used to, but the way FCP X handles media gives you an idea of where Apple is (hopefully) going with the software. When you import media into a project, the app can create proxy media for you. The transcodes happen in the background, so you can start editing right away, but the proxy media is there to make editing more efficient and easier on lower powered machines, like a MacBook Air. Or an iPad.

One hour of 1080p H.264 media, such as DSLR footage, is roughly 35 GB. The same media at ProRes Proxy SD (which FCP X generates) is closer to 4 GB. While still large, that proxy media is in the range of what an iPad can handle. Currently iPads go up to 64 GB. iCloud can be upgraded up to 50 GB of cloud storage for $100 a year. A short film, let’s say, with 8 hours of footage would take up about 32 GB of storage for proxy media. That falls within the conceivable storage limits of the iPad, iCloud and even iPhone.

Storage, of course, isn’t the only constraint to a real working solution for mobile video projects. Another big one is network speed. Even over a robust Wireless-N connection, downloading 32 GB of anything onto an iPad will take awhile. In iOS 5, Apple created a system for allowing large files, such as graphics-heavy magazines in Newsstand, to automatically download to the device only over Wifi when it is plugged into power. A 32 GB download should probably pull down into your iPad overnight. Plus there is that rumor that Apple will start adopting the new 802.11ac technology this year, which is capable of Wifi speeds over 1 gigabit per second.

Ideally, a “Final Cut in the Cloud” solution would work the exact same way that iA Writer’s document sync works. You can edit the project on your Mac, then pick up your iPad and have it seamlessly be up to date with your latest edits. While you’re out you could tweak your cuts some more, and when you get back to your computer, your project would propagate all of your changes. It would just work.

What’s the Point?

It’s clear that Apple is taking its full line of products into iCloud. Final Cut’s massive overhaul last year brings the app inline with the rest of the company’s products, making a cloud-based editing solution not only conceivable, but probable.

There are a lot of people who think it’s nuts to consider being able to edit a film on an iPad. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that professionals scoffed at editing on a laptop. The technology has advanced, and what was once crazy is now the norm. Last year, when my 17" MacBook Pro started showing signs of age, I chose to get an iMac instead of another laptop. I realized that I don’t really need a powerful laptop for any field work. On top of that, the iPad fulfills all of my out and about computing needs; I really only need a powerful system at home.

Pundits like to take the news that OS X is cribbing features from iOS as a sign that the Mac is devolving, but the truth is that iOS is simply maturing well beyond what we think of it as today. I expect that, soon, everything I’m able to do on my Mac I’ll be able to do on my iPad. We’re getting pretty close already.

  1. Avid Studio for iPad is able to export projects to Avid Studio on the PC, but not run an actual “sync.” ↩︎