Want to know how not to manage a product architectural transition? Look no further than Apple’s disastrous release of Final Cut Pro X this week.
I write this as a confirmed Apple fanboy. I learned to program on an Apple II+, got an SE/30 as my high school graduation present, got MacBook 140 as my college graduation present, and now have a G5, a MacBook Pro 15″ laptop, an iPhone, an iPad, an Airport, an Airport Express, and … uh oh … Final Cut Studio 6.
Final Cut Studio Rocks!
I love Final Cut Studio. I’ve used it since December 2005 to edit videos for my spare-time not-for-profit AIDSvideos.org. I’ve created over a hundred educational videos using it. It has more power than I will ever need, but it’s good to know that every feature I could ever want is in there if I need it, and the application makes this power accessible to non-professional video editors as well. You can use it for everything from family videos to professional movies.
Apple Mistakes in the Transition to Final Cut Pro X
This week, Apple released Final Cut Pro X, and it made several basic mistakes:
- Final Cut Pro X does not have all the features of Final Cut Studio 7.
- Final Cut Pro X cannot import project files created with Final Cut Studio 7.
- Either Apple didn’t commit at the time of launch to ultimately provide full content backward compatibility and import capability in a future release, or if it did, it sure didn’t communicate that adequately to its existing customers!
- Without any advance warning to customers, Apple ceased selling Final Cut Studio 7 as soon as it released Final Cut Pro X.
Error #1 and error #2 could have been managed and tolerated if Apple hadn’t made error #3 and error #4 as well.
A company has a right to re-envision a major product, as Apple has done with Final Cut Pro X. It has the right to create a new release that targets a larger, lower end of the market, as Apple seems to be doing with Final Cut Pro X. It even has the right to release a new version that doesn’t have all the features of previous versions, and that at least initially can’t import the previous version’s legacy files. But when a company does this, it has to manage the transition period carefully to protect the interests of its longtime customers. It’s here that Apple made terrible and uncharacteristic mistakes.
By taking Final Cut Studio 7 off the market without advance warning, Apple left in the lurch customers who had intended to upgrade to a newer version but need backward compatibility with our existing project files (me), and more importantly, people who have large companies and teams with many users of Final Cut Studio 7 and who need to buy more copies as they grow their companies (professional video editing firms).
Ironically, I was in the Apple Store last week and picked a Final Cut Studio 7 upgrade pack off the shelf, but I didn’t buy it because I knew that the new release was coming out this week, so I figured I’d upgrade directly and save some money and time. It didn’t even occur to me that Apple might release a new version of Final Cut without providing full backward compatibility with prior versions, or that Apple would do that and pull Final Cut Studio 7 upgrades off the market at the same time without warning. Had I known these two facts, I would have bought that Final Cut Studio 7 upgrade last week. I tried to today, and the Apple Store confirmed that the product has been discontinued and is no longer available in the store or online. So for the moment, I have no way to upgrade from Final Cut Studio 6 to a newer version, even though I want to do so and am happy to pay.
Consequences of Bad Product Transition Management for Apple
Because of these four basic errors in product transition management (especially the fourth), the release of Final Cut Pro X, instead of being an exciting release of a fresh, new product, has turned into a public relations disaster for Apple. Many online reviews of both the product and how Apple is managing the transition have ranged from highly critical to scathing. As DVCreators.net notes:
Articles like “Did Apple screw up with Final Cut Pro X?” and “The Final Cut Pro Backlash” are appearing by the hour. Even Fortune magazine has joined the fray, with “The Final Cut Pro X debacle“. Refunds are being processed as you read this sentence. At this writing, FCPX has a 2.5 star rating on the App Store …
An online petition demanding that Apple put Final Cut Studio 7 back on sale or sell the product to someone who went from 600 signatures at 2:35 p.m. EDT Monday to 4132 signatures at 4:20 p.m. EDT today. Apple has already announced that it will refund the purchase price of Final Cut Pro X for anyone who asks–a highly unusual step in a world of shrink-wrapped software installers, and to top it off, Final Cut Pro X has now been hilariously lampooned on the Conan O’Brien show. When even late-night comedians are making fun of your product, you know you’ve screwed up!
What Apple Needs to Do to End the Firestorm and Support Its Customers
Apple has already done the first thing it has to do. According to the person I talked to at the Apple Store, Apple has announced that a future version of Final Cut Pro X will support the ability to import projects created with Final Cut Studio 7. That’s a step in the right direction since it gives those of us with years of legacy content a forward migration path.
For project importing to work for all of its customers’ content, a future version of Final Cut Pro X will have to provide full backward content compatibility, which means supporting all of the content features that Final Cut Studio 7 did. I don’t know whether Apple is committing to full backward content compatibility, but it should. If not, it will be stranding those customers whose content depended on the features that are not carried forward. If it chooses to permanently drop some content features, it should continue selling and providing technical support for Final Cut Studio 7 for a much longer period of time than is customary since its customers will be forced to continue using it until and unless they can migrate their content to another supported tool that has the same features (a process that usually ranges somewhere from “painful, difficult, time-consuming, and expensive” to “cost-prohibitive” to “impossible.”)
Next, Apple should resume selling Final Cut Studio 7, in both “new” and “upgrade” packages, at least until a version of Final Cut Pro X is released with full backward content compatibility. That will enable individuals like me who need an upgrade path to have one and video editing firms that have standardized on Final Cut Studio and are adding staff to provide them the software they need during the transition period. (Because Final Cut Studio has network-wide license detection built in, installing extra unlicensed copies as a workaround for this bad set of decisions by Apple is not even technically possible, let alone legal!)
Rules for Product Transition Management
Learn from Apple’s mistakes on the launch of Final Cut Pro X.
- When you release a new version of a product, provide full backward compatibility with files and data created by previous versions of your product.
- If you release a new version without full backward compatibility, commit at the time of launch that you will provide full backward compatibility in a future release, and then do so promptly.
- If you permanently drop support for a product, feature, or especially for legacy customer-created files and data, provide plenty of advance notice, continue selling and supporting the product for a much longer period of time than is customary, and support affected customers in migrating to alternative, competing products if they choose to.
It’s not rocket science. It’s good product management. Apple, are you listening to your customers?