Apple’s iDVD: Legos or an Erector Set?

I’ve been thinking about this since reading accounts of Steve Jobs’ Macworld Expo keynote address, but I hadn’t written anything about it yet…

My former employer, Sonic Solutions, has been developing, marketing and selling software and hardware for authoring and mastering DVD titles since at least 1997, first in a partnership with Daikin, and later on their own. Some of the smartest, most experienced, loyal and friendly developers and testers I know are there still.

Though Sonic has had to deal with its fair share of FUD, engineering problems, unpredicted market shifts, and unprofitable quarters, they’ve managed to hang in there, while continuing to do ground-breaking work and to recieve great reviews, despite fierce competition. (Fortunately for Sonic, they’re not very succeptible to dot-com disease.)

When I heard about iDVD, my first reaction was one of sympathy for my friends at Sonic. Why? Because while in the past, Sonic’s market strategy had been based on high-end, professional DVD authoring workstations, they saw some time ago, that the true path to salvation and substantial profits was through products like Sonic’s DVDit and… Apple’s iDVD. These are mass-marketed software-only products aimed at non-expert users with limited resources, rather than niche professionals who can afford $100K in specialized hardware and software. In my opinion, Sonic Solutions would be extremely lucky if they can compete on an equal footing with Apple Computer in this kind of market, especially considering that Apple “got there” first.

Sonic was in this game at least two full years before Apple decided to bring their vast development and marketing resources to bear (not to mention their purchasing power), and now it looks as though iDVD will take the lead in MacOS-based DVD authoring, at least in terms of market share, if not also in terms of profitability. While Sonic’s Mac version of DVDit is still in development, Apple has decided to bundle their own DVD authoring software and hardware along with their new Power Mac G4 systems.

What sucks about this is that the Mac end-users are the ones who stand to lose the most. For Mac users, Apple’s iDVD software is positioned to become the defacto standard for authoring DVDs on MacOS, if for no other reason than that Apple’s software comes free with a G4.

Of course I have a personal (non-monetary) interest in Sonic’s success, because I want the work that I did there to matter and to last, and because I want my friends to win… I also have a strong suspicion that Apple’s iDVD software simply isn’t as good. Why do I know this? Read on…

I spent two years of my life doing almost nothing except making sure that DVD titles created using Sonic’s system were error free – that they met the (infamous) DVD specification, that they would play in all kinds of players, and that the video and audio quality was as good as it could be. We used obscure diagnostic tools (that’s all there were), sometimes debugging the diagnostics as we were dubbging our own software, and it was laborious. We were pushing the envelope. There are scores of others, both still at Sonic Solutions, and now elsewhere, who could justifiably make much larger claims about the amount of time and energy they invested in fine-tuning Sonic’s DVD systems.

The thing is that this stuff is really hard to do, and even harder to do right. Making compressed video look good to the average human eye is an art more than a science, and fine-tuning is essential. There are literally millions of variables (if not more), and building an algorithm which is capable of generating viable video content takes lots and lots of time, and even more testing. While Sonic has done this work, and done it very well, Apple doesn’t even seem to have a way to bring video into their system without using someone else’s video encoding hardware, and you can be sure it isn’t Sonic’s.

While I was at Sonic Solutions, we burned many, many DVD-R discs, for testing purposes. While keeping in mind that this was over a year ago, I recall that blank discs would cost about $50 a-piece. So how Apple can sell the blanks for $50/ten-pack escapes me. I wonder how much money they’re losing ramping up their product.

Regardless of the deals they’ve made, companies they’ve bought, and quality of input data available to their users, Apple has a more difficult problem, which is making sure that the output data is in the correct format.

The DVD specification is extremely complex, and verification tools are hard to come by, and expensive. In the end, the only verification tool that matters is the DVD player at the other end of the video stream, and I know for a fact that Sonic put thousands of hours into testing their titles, both using verification tools, and using real consumer DVD players. Can Apple make this claim? I doubt it. In fact, I’d be surprised if any except for the simplest titles built using iDVD or DVD Studio Pro would validate using all of the tools that Sonic brings to bear. *

This brings me to the most important point: I can’t possibly imagine a way that Apple could enable iDVD users to create anything except the simplest of DVD discs. First, any user interface which fully supports the DVD specification will have to be relatively complex, since a DVD is a hierarchy with different sets of rules applying to each level of the hierarchy. There are physical limitations of the medium which require these constraints. As a developer, Apple would have had two choices upon realizing this point: 1) Constrain the user to the simplest case, or 2) Hide most of the user interface so that only experienced users will find it.

The first choice leads to DVD discs which have (maybe) one menu, and work pretty much like a video tape. The second presents an untennable problem for Apple: How can we possibly support the users? Answer: You can’t. You’re too busy. You have to deal with hard disks, recharging PowerBook batteries, cracking Cube cases, AirPort configuration failures and selling iDVD to your customers… They have to keep iDVD’s simple. They can’t afford to allow their users to get lost.

What does this all mean? It means that the market will be set back. It means that Mac users will be left behind in the DVD market, becuase Windows users will (eventually) find software for authoring better DVD titles than Mac users will be able to author, becuase they’ll have a wider variety of better software available to them.

It means Mac users will again be ridiculed for sticking with Erector Sets when they could have had Legos.

It sucks, but it seems that for now, that’s the way it is.

* There’s always Apple’s DVD Studio Pro, which claims compliance and full implementation of the DVD spec, and costs about $1,000. I doubt that anyone has fully implemented the DVD spec, but that’s material for another rant… Oh, and don’t forget that Sonic’s first DVD product was called DVD Studio…

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