Monday, January 21, 2008

Is Software Innovation Dead?

This was one of the first years that I did not find myself in San Francisco in January, for the annual MacWorld Expo. I figured that I would be able to go on the web and get a sense of the kind of cool software & hardware gadgets to show up on the show floor, the one or two things that would knock my socks off and give me hope for the world of creative software.

Well, it looks like I didn't miss anything. Outside of the Apple announcement, there was precious little to see on the floor at Moscone that folks didn't already know about.

I can think back to years past, taking a trek through the Developer's Pavilion and scoping out the one or two neat software hacks that no one know about, and sharing the discovery of those cool toys with my fellow expo-goers back at the infamous "Office" (if you have to ask, forget it, I'm not saying anything else about that moniker). I clearly remember gazing at the very first version of Cinema 4D ever shown publicly, and to see it running on a dual-processor Mac G4 was quite the thrill (unlike trying to get Infini-D to work properly on a multi-processor Mac, which almost drove me to madness). When we first laid eyes on Todd Rundgren's FlowFazer screen saver, my friends & I thought we had died and gone to heaven - no one had seen anything like it on a microcomputer. Hanging out at Todd's house, messing around with all those outrageous FlowFazer modules that never did see the light of day, was just too much fun.

There were lots of gems that we would seek out, and nothing made me happier than to let people know this stuff existed, that the world of applications was bigger than word processing, spreadsheets, databases and all the other well-worn software categories. How many different ways can you move words around on a screen? Once you learn Microsoft Word, that's about as far as you go in the realm of writing, and let's be clear, the vast majority of folks who depend on the Microsoft Office, haven't explored the majority of tools, command and menu options that are in the programs that make up the suite. It's not like Photoshop is very different in this regard - I'd like to have a dollar for every Photoshop user who has never taken the time to even open the Calculations command, much less the Custom filter. Most of the program remains a mystery to everyone except the most devoted users.

When it comes to software development, Photoshop plugins are an excellent example of how much of the third-party development world has largely dried up - if you doubt this, step back and think about what cool Photoshop plugin you've seen released in recent memory. If you've been using Photoshop for awhile, consider what it was like 10, 15 years ago, with wild new plugins being released on what seemed like a monthly basis. I'm not trying to downplay the excellent work that companies like Alien Skin Software are doing, but in many cases, companies produce plugins which essentially duplicate Photoshop functionality, predicated on the lack of knowledge many Photoshop users have about how filters and other commands work together to produce complex results.

In the case of the recent MacWorld Expo, the biggest software release was... Microsoft Office 2008 (and in a rare exception, it was even available early in the year that makes up part of the name). OK, if you're an Office user, this was good news, but seriously, how many ways can you type a word? Is there anything earth-shattering about this software? Did Microsoft add Keynote-style cool transitions, is there a 3D confetti effect? I suspect that anyone happy with running earlier version of Office in Rosetta is not likely to jump at the chance of giving Microsoft more of their hard earned greenbacks. Good enough is, well, good enough.

I wonder if Apple had a dedicated demo station showing off Logic Studio, and the amazing thing which is the Sculpture synth, of the luscious sonic sweetness of the Delay Designer. I am fully aware that MacWorld Expo is a consumer show, but there are lots of people who would probably consider themselves professional media creators, who attend the show hoping to find something they didn't know about, some hidden gem that would open new creative possibilities. Based on the coverage I've seen on the web, I'm going to guess that the majority walked away from the Moscone expo hall somewhat less than blown away.

The most interesting software for doing creative stuff on a Mac - Studio Artist, MetaSynth, ArtMatic Pro, Groboto - could be seen nowhere on the show floor. The rather amazing Cheetah3D - a full-fledged modeling, rendering and animation package, Mac-only and priced at $129, was not there. I won't go into the issue of all of the music software companies which chose to pass on Expo this year - I'm gonna guess that they were all headed to NAMM instead - but the fact that most of them did not even bother to have any kind of representation at the show is telling.

I've always felt that the audio industry presented an opportunity to learn about how innovation works in high tech in general, and the fact is that the excitement and innovation these days remains quite healthy in the sound software biz. In fact, the rate of release of new software synthesizers, effects and audio libraries so far outpaces just about anything happening in video or imaging, that it's a little scary and very frustrating. Computers have more processing power than ever, to the point where we no longer lust after faster and faster processors - most of us are fairly happy with dual-core Intel Duos, and while I would personally love to have a top-end Mac Pro tower, I'm surviving quite well without it (of course, if I had to edit a bunch of uncompressed high-def video, I'd be sure to build one of these monsters into the budget). Has the software kept up with the harware? I think not, and this trend shows no signs of changing anytime soon. Who will release the next amazing, mind-blowing visual effects package? How about an image editor that takes the prowess of Photoshop and harnesses the largely-untapped CPU power to implement a next-generation interface that will do the heavy lifting?

Or are we doomed to a future of Photoshop 18.1 and Microsoft Office 2012?