Tech Talk

TechTalk: The Score: Consumers 10, Pros 0

Of all the great gear we use to record and play back sound, the only non-audio product in the signal chain is the personal computer. We’ve come to rely on either an Apple or a Windows-based hardwar 10/01/2011 5:00 AM

Of all the great gear we use to record and play back sound, the only non-audio product in the signal chain is the personal computer. We’ve come to rely on either an Apple or a Windows-based hardware manufacturer to provide the goods. And while audio companies are varied—offering a range of flavors, prices and options—the computer side offers more narrowly focused products targeted at a broader audience. We have always been able to get what we need, but this is changing.

Apple’s booming success in the past five years—selling the function of their products rather than the physical features—has been a game-changer. But let’s look back for perspective. Engineers, musicians and creative types in art and publishing have always leaned more toward Apple than Windows-based systems; its products were considered geeky and niche, which didn’t necessarily translate to consumer sales, leaving the company struggling to maintain a 5-percent market share. Still, Apple always catered to the pro on some level.

For instance, it introduced the beefy X-serve in 2002, which was wicked-powerful, offering single or dual processors, lots of I/O and storage, a mixture of new and legacy card slots, and much more. Basic configurations started at $2,999. It was discontinued in January of this year. Apple recommends users substitute the laughingly diminished Mac Mini Server running Lion Server software in its place; it costs around $799.

A little more than a decade ago, Apple introduced Final Cut Pro ($1,299), which over time became the favorite of indie and pro editors worldwide and competed heavily with Avid’s Media Composer. Apple released Final Cut Pro X this year, and it was soundly panned by the pro community. FPCX ($300) lacks key features aimed at pro use, and it will not open projects saved from past versions of FCP. Apple clearly made the move toward the broader sales appeal, aka the “new” video pro who creates content for the Web. It makes sense from a business standpoint—there are a lot more potential customers—but what about the pros who still need a high-end platform?

Apple bought emagic in 2002, and through a series of version releases rewrote the software, raising the roof on features and included extras. Today, for $599, Logic Pro comes with the MainStage, Soundtrack Pro, WaveBurner and Compressor utilities, no slouches in their own right, plus an impressive range of Apple Loops, instruments, processors and more. It’s been two years since a major upgrade, and I wonder where Apple will position this product in its portfolio when Logic 10 releases: Will it be a GarageBand Pro? Like FCP, Logic catered to the pro market, but will it continue?

Now let’s take that approach into hardware. One of the headlines that has been above the crease is that the PC age is over. DisplaySearch’s 2011 Quarterly Mobile PC Shipment and Forecast Report shows that Apple killed the competition with a 21.1-percent share of market, with HP trailing at 15 percent, Dell at 11.6 percent, Acer at 10.9 percent and Lenovo at 7.5 percent. What’s behind these numbers tells a different story: The report tallies shipped products, not sold ones. Apple’s closest competitor, HP, is getting out of the hardware PC business altogether, blowing out its TouchPad tablet for $100. In August 2011, Dell cut its 2012 revenue-growth figures, sending its stock south 10 percent, and Acer recently reported its first quarterly loss and did not expect to break even in 2011. Also remember these are mobile PC products (pads, laptops and phones), with the emphasis on consumer. If you can’t make it in the consumer sector, you’re not going to make towers for the pros.

You can’t blame Apple for looking forward and going for the bigger brass ring. With the competition in shambles and Apple selling function in deference to tech-y features on its hardware, is this the end of the PC era? Steve Jobs himself told All Things Digital: “I think PCs are going to be like trucks: Less people will need them. And this transformation is going to make some people uneasy…because the PC has taken us a long way. They were amazing. But it changes. Vested interests are going to change. And I think we’ve embarked on that change. Is it the iPad? Who knows? Will it be next year or five years?…We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, it’s uncomfortable.”

As I write this, the ink on Steve Jobs’ resignation is less than 24 hours old. Despite the stock taking a small hit the first day, this is still Apple’s world and we’re living in it. Will Apple bail on Thunderbolt? USB? Optical drives, hard drives and slots in favor of the Cloud? Wherever the company goes, it will mean we will have to adjust. New products will have to be conceived for our limited pro market. Not that we were ever the center of the computer-maker’s universe, but we at least had a corner of it. We should see over the next year whether we are being brought back to the table.