Have Autodesk Smoked The Competition?

From a post-production perspective Autodesk’s announcement of Smoke 2013 has probably been the biggest news of NAB 2012.

Smoke is an established product from Autodesk. Initially it was a high-end system running only on expensive turnkey Linux systems, then in 2009 they released Smoke for Mac – able to run on a fairly standard MacPro and at the new affordable price of only US$15,000. Of course that price seems crazy now compared to Apple Final Cut Pro X at only $300, Avid Media Composer at $2,500 and Adobe Production Premium at $1,700.  Also, while Smoke has a timeline and editing tools it was really a finishing suite, few people would choose to actually cut on the software. So Autodesk decided to go back to the drawing board…

I’m not going to try and re-hash the new Smoke 2013 product for you here, I haven’t used it first hand and others know a lot more about it than I do, so here are some great links:

That Post Show – Smoke This Podcast (in-depth interview with Autodesk’s Mark-André Ferguson)
Walter Biscardi: Yes, Autodesk Smoke 2013 Changes Everything
NAB 2012: Autodesk Unveils a New Smoke

What I will do though is try to understand what sort of impact this makes on the Post landscape and what we might expect to see from the competition.

Listening to That Post Show (link above – highly recommended) I couldn’t help but thinking that many of the new features in Smoke sounded both very sensible and very familiar. It sounds like Autodesk have really taken time to understand the professional post production market, from small one-man-bands all the way up to large post facilities – Smoke’s features sound well thought out to address the needs of those users and at a price that’s easily within reach while not devaluing the product or the skill of it’s users.

The features sounded familiar to me because I’ve used (although not extensively) Avid’s DS system. Now, if you asked a lot of working editors to play a product association game it’s unlikely many would come up with ‘DS’ when you say Avid, but it is one of their key professional video tools. DS it a very powerful finishing tool – it features a full NLE interface but also a powerful multi-layer and nodal effects engine. It’s also possibly an under-developed product sadly. While DS has a base of devoted users it is also a niche product that hasn’t seen a lot of big developments in the last 5-6 years and it has never received the marketing push that Avid’s Media Composer and Symphony products have. So while Smoke 2013 seems like a great product for post-production it is also poses the question “is this what DS could have been?”

I’d like to think that Avid will see the attention that Smoke has grabbed and realise that it already has a product that’s quite close and just needs some more attention. But even if that happens, how soon could we expect to see Avid revitalise DS in the way that they have with Media Composer?

The approach that Autodesk (and Avid, with DS) have taken is to have a single tool that can do it all. Smoke and DS are capable NLEs, they also have a very strong effects pipeline and advanced colour correction tools – the idea being that the project can stay in a single application instead of being moved through a series of disconnected (or loosely connected) tools to achieve a finished product. I like this approach – for most things – but at the same time it should be recognised that a tool dedicated to a single task is usually more powerful than one dedicated to all tasks – the old “jack of all trades, master of none” thing. For most projects the Smoke approach of multifuctional tool makes sense and it the right answer, but for some projects a dedicated tool is probably a better solution. So in this way Smoke isn’t going to kill the need for dedicated editing tools like Media Composer, or grading tools like Resolve or effects tools like After Effects.

As for Smoke itself – it’s an exciting product. Most of my job is finishing or online – I am grading, doing basic effects and fixes on TV shows. Currently I do so with Avid Symphony and occasionally Adobe After Effects, but it’s easy for me to see that Smoke could be a great solution for my needs, and at only US$3,500 it’s not even a difficult purchase to justify. But, and it’s a fairly big one for me, it’s tied to the Mac. Currently all my systems are Windows-based HP workstations. I don’t have any Mac hardware and given what appears to be Apple’s growing disinterest in desktop computer in favour of mobile and smart devices I am entirely unwilling to make an investment in Apple hardware. Realistically the only option available to run Smoke 2013 in my situation is a iMac which is unsuitable for my needs. It’s hard to imagine where Apple is going in the next couple of years, but if I were a company that specialises in high-end content creation tools I would not be relying on Apple alone to provide a platform for my software.

I’m sure Smoke 2013 will be a great product and I think Autodesk has clearly understood exactly how to meet the market. I would also love to see Avid meet them head-on with DS or something new – I think the approach Smoke is taking makes a lot of sense and it’s one that Avid has taken before. I would like to see Autodesk make Smoke cross-platform – either offering it for Windows or making a Linux version that could be run on standard ‘PC’ hardware.

Regardles of specifics the future is bright for us. It’s now entirely possible to have a computer with Media Composer, the entire Adobe collection, DaVinci  Resolve, Smoke, ProTools and much more, all for less than the cost of a single basic NLE suite from just ten years ago – and it can do more than even the most high-end tools of ten years ago.