Improving on Destiny

Improving on Destiny

Cody Holt

At NAB ’94, Sony was finally ready to embrace destiny. The previous 10 years had been tumultuous ones in the video industry. Upstart, computer-based companies like Newtek, ImMIX, and Avid had revolutionized the video world with their desktop systems. Meanwhile, video’s traditional heavyweights like Sony, Panasonic, and JVC, were slow to react to the industry’s new direction, possibly because of the many levels of R&D and corporate approval inherent in their large, well-established company structures.

But that was about to change. On the industry’s biggest stage, Sony was prepared to make a statement. And it seemed people were willing to listen. The DES-500 nonlinear editing system (also known as Destiny) was one of the most highly anticipated introductions at NAB that year. It even won a Pick Hit award from Broadcast Engineering, one of Video Systems’ sister publications, based on its potential. But then something happened.

After NAB, the system quietly disappeared. An occasional ad would run in the trade press touting, among other things, the system’s hybrid editing capabilities. “However you cut it, it’s the ideal editing solution,” the ads proclaimed. But the system was not ideal. How could it be? It wasn’t even shipping. In fact, the system would never ship to the general public. It seems Destiny was still a little shy — technically speaking.

Three years later, Dan Grant hadn’t forgotten Destiny. A producer/director at Collegedale, Tennessee-based McKee Foods, makers of Little Debbie snack cakes, Grant was in the market for a nonlinear editing system that could accommodate McKee’s gradual transition from analog to digital video. At NAB ’96, Sony had introduced the ES-7 (EditStation) nonlinear editor, the company’s first foray into the nonlinear market since the failed Destiny. The system was ready to ship by the fall of ’97 and with its hybrid editing capabilities was perfect for McKee’s needs. However, Destiny’s ghost still haunted Grant.

“I remember when [Destiny] was introduced and a lot of people were excited about it and Sony made a big ballyhoo about it. But it never took off. That made me more hesitant,” Grant now says. “When a company has a bunch of fanfare for something and it doesn’t work out for some reason, you’ve got to wonder why.”

Despite his concerns, Grant decided to purchase an ES-7 system, in large part because of the feeling he got when speaking with Sony representatives about the product. “I really felt like they were going to stick with [the ES-7] and support it,” he says. “I think what they had in the past was a half-hearted attempt to get into the nonlinear market and this time they’ve really tried to make it work. They’ve got to make nonlinear work, that’s the way the world’s headed.”

And don’t think Sony doesn’t know that — Panasonic and JVC, too, for that matter. Leigh Herman, product manager of Sony’s EditStation brand, says the company stands firmly behind the EditStation family and will likely expand upon its nonlinear offerings in the near future. He says Sony is exploring all levels of the market, from entry-level, software-based applications to high-end, broadcast systems. (Product managers from Panasonic and JVC confirm similar market explorations.) Currently, Sony has two nonlinear offerings, the ES-7, which has a base price of $35,000, and the ES-3, which the company began delivering at NAB this year at a base price of $24,950.

“We know that every level of the market is important to cover because we cover every level of the market with our tape formats and VTRs,” says Herman. “The challenge is capturing some mindshare out there.”

Panasonic and JVC face the same challenge. All three companies have built a reputation based on tape formats, VTRs, and cameras. While this strategy has made the names “Sony,” “Panasonic,” and “JVC” synonymous with professional video, it has done little to help them establish a foothold in the nonlinear market.

“There isn’t a rubber stamp that guarantees success whenever Sony, Panasonic, or JVC comes out with a new product,” says Tom Phillips, product manager for editing and post-production systems at JVC. “We have to prove ourselves all over again [in this new market], just as if we were new companies.”

Monica Peixoto, product marketing manager for Panasonic’s nonlinear systems, says the company had a hard time making an initial impact in the nonlinear arena because of customer perceptions. “For a while we had trouble marketing NLE systems because people couldn’t make the connection between Panasonic and nonlinear editors,” she says. “But that was years ago.”

Indeed, after slow sales upon its initial launch, Panasonic’s Postbox system has become one of the most established nonlinear offerings from the Japanese triumvirate of Sony, Panasonic, and JVC. Originally introduced at NAB ’95 with real-time capabilities, Postbox was the first nonlinear product from one of those companies to ship. Peixoto estimates that Panasonic has sold 1,000 Postbox systems over the last four years. The most recent version, Postbox 2000, was introduced this year at NAB and is already shipping. It has a base price of $39,900.

In addition to Postbox 2000, Panasonic is currently selling two other nonlinear systems. With a base price of $25,995, the company’s DVEdit is a lower-pric ed alternative to the Postbox. Panasonic’s newsBYTE system is designed strictly for broadcast applications. Its base price is $65,000 for a complete system, which includes a built-in 4X DVCPRO VTR. Like the newsBYTE, the DVEdit uses DVCPRO (DV-based) compression. Postbox systems use M-JPEG compression.

JVC was the last to enter the nonlinear marketplace — about a year ago — and currently has one offering, the Timegate MW-S1000. With a base price of $39,900, the Timegate system entered the market in the same price range as the initial offerings from Sony and Panasonic. And it’s no coincidence. The $35K to $45K market segment includes a huge cross-section of users, from high-end corporate, government, and educational users to mid-range post houses to low-end television stations. It’s a smart strategy, as all three companies need to draw on the largest pool of users possible as they fight for marketshare against computer-based companies, most of which entered the market before the Japanese triumvirate and focus, in many cases, almost exclusively on nonlinear desktop systems.

Phillips says JVC’s entry into the digital era in general and, more specifically, into the NLE market continues to be a challenge for the company’s marketers. “It presents a big challenge because historically JVC has been known for S-VHS,” he says, referring to the company’s popular analog video format. “It’s been an uphill battle, but not an insurmountable one. We’re still [perceived] nothing like an Avid or Media 100, where the company is based solely on nonlinear editors.”

To fight this perception, Phillips says JVC stepped up its advertising this summer and hired more nonlinear specialists to help with the Timegate brand. He says the company is also doing “tons” of one-on-one demos with potential buyers and at times has offered significant price reductions, especially when the system was first launched, as a final enticement to wavering editors.

Sony and Panasonic have taken similar steps. All three companies have pitched the intrinsic benefits of staying with a single brand — and a single video format — throughout the production process in an effort to capitalize on the huge user bases each has established in the camera, VTR, and tape format businesses. Sony and Panasonic have even sought out partnerships with more established companies in the nonlinear business. (See “Unprecedented Alliances,” page 43.) These strategies are paying off, as more and more video editors are buying into these brands — but not without some hesitation.

A Leap of Faith Dan Grant calls his decision to purchase Sony’s ES-7 nonlinear system a “leap of faith.” He’s not alone. It seems most users who have purchased a Sony, Panasonic, or JVC nonlinear system have had to come to terms with an element of the unknown, especially when the systems were first introduced.

“We knew [the ES-7] wouldn’t have everything we wanted when we got it,” Grant says. “And the first year was pretty rough. The software was very basic.”

But Grant was willing to endure Sony’s maturing process for several reasons. First, he was won over by the ES-7’s DVCAM compression capabilities. With a facility full of Sony analog gear and plans to invest in Sony digital equipment, Grant was excited about the near-lossless images he would get by staying in DVCAM throughout the production process.

Grant specifically liked the idea of using the ES-7 with a DVCAM VTR. With this combination, he could transfer DVCAM footage at 4X speed. “I love to watch it digitize,” Grant says of his ES-7, in which he has invested $60,000, including all possible upgrades. “You might need to do something else while it’s uploading footage, but you don’t want to leave the room because it’s so much fun to watch.”

Like Grant, Kevin Sio says the personalized demo he received helped him decide on a nonlinear system. In early 1996, Sio, the only videographer/editor at Niagara Mohawk, a utilities provider serving more than 1.5 million customers from its headquarters in Syracuse, NY, says he was considering desktop systems from DVision, Avid, Media 100, FAST, and ImMIX in the $30,000 range. But when he saw a demo for Panasonic’s Postbox system he was sold.

“Some of the other demos I saw were almost off-hand,” Sio recalls. “At the time, Panasonic wanted to sell some of these systems and get a user base, so they did a very good job selling the system.”

As a result, he says the company was very attentive to his needs and was willing to negotiate on the price. This type of treatment, Sio says, has continued in the form of excellent customer support. Recently, when one of the original hard drives on his three-year-old system crashed, Sio sent the Postbox to Panasonic, which had it back to him in about a week. The hard drive was covered under the company’s Gold Medal Service Contract, which Sio purchased with his Postbox system.

But it was more than customer support that convinced Sio to go with the relatively new Panasonic product. He says he simply felt that it was the best system for the price at the time of his purchase. He was particularly impressed with the built-in character generator and paint program, which he says were much more sophisticated than what the other desktop systems he demo’d had to offer.

Postbox’s ease-of-use was another selling point. In fact, Sio says the system’s ease-of-use was reaffirmed for him just recently. “A few weeks ago, a couple of interns had some free time and I gave them a camera to play around with,” he recalls. “They came up with a good idea and shot some footage. I digitized the footage and gave them about five minutes of training on how to build a sequence [with the Postbox]. They picked it right up. It’s a very easy, intuitive system to learn.”

Indeed, Sony, Panasonic, and JVC all get generally high marks from users for ease-of-use. In turn, this ease-of-use has allowed the manufacturers to go after first-time nonlinear buyers, a demographic that makes up a large portion of the user base for each company.

Dr. Edwin Carpenter, the director of the distributed learning lab at the University of Arizona’s college of agriculture, is one such user. He says he chose Panasonic’s DVEdit and Postbox systems because of the straightforward interface that the two systems share. “We’re mostly computer users around here, not video guys,” he says. “So we were primarily concerned with finding a system that had the look and feel of a computer.”

Carpenter says he considered a Media 100 system, but feared its proprietary interface would be too complicated for his staff, which at the time consisted of one self-trained video editor and two editors with no experience on nonlinear systems. “You’d have to be a full-time user [of the Media 100 system] to be comfortable with it,” says Carpenter, adding that the college’s Panasonic systems may go unused for weeks at a time.

When they are used, their primary function is to edit video clips of professors teaching in digital classrooms. The footage is edited, repurposed to CD-ROM or distributed over the Internet, and offered to college students as full-credit courses. Carpenter says the DVEdit is particularly well-suited for this application because of its ability to output AVI digital files.

Ted Wilson, media producer at United Airlines’ pilot training center in Denver, is another video editor with no previous nonlinear experience who was won over by ease-of-use. He says getting up to speed on his Sony ES-7 system was as comfortable as going from a linear to a nonlinear system could have been. However, he says the system is losing its ease-of-use with each upgrade.

“Their latest software takes the EditStation squarely into the nonlinear world — right into the Avid environment,” Wilson says of Sony’s recently released 2.0 software. “Frankly, it’s difficult for us to pick up.”

As a result, Wilson says he has had to go back to the previous software version until he has time to learn the new version. But since all of his pilot training videos are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration and must be completed on strict deadline, he isn’t sure when that will be. In the meantime, he says Sony has offered to send him a second EditStation to train on.

All in the Family One other big draw for many nonlinear buyers considering a system from Sony, Panasonic, or JVC is the desire to build an edit suite with equipment from the same manufacturer. With most of these systems, users can achieve substantial image-quality gains by doing so.

Sony, Panasonic, and JVC are in the unique position to offer this sort of end-to-end production environment. And they’re making the most of it. Sony’s Herman estimates that three out of four ES-7 buyers purchase an entire production system from Sony, not just the editor. He says Sony will likely return to this type of marketing scheme with its newly introduced ES-3.

Terry Payne, video editor at Autozone’s automotive training department in Memphis, TN, says he decided to purchase a JVC Timegate system six months ago in part because his boss wanted to maintain JVC equipment throughout Autozone’s edit suite. Although the decision to buy the system wasn’t entirely his own, Payne says it seems to be working out, although there have been a few glitches.

“I was getting frustrated with it and then [JVC’s technical support staff] figured out that some of the hardware had not been installed correctly,” he says. “Since I got it back, it has worked fine. And they sent me another system at their expense while mine was getting serviced. Their customer support is very good.”

Like Payne, Chris Woodley has a history with JVC equipment. But unlike Payne, Woodley chose to purchase a Timegate system on his own terms. As the owner of Mountain Media Productions in Littleton, Colorado, Woodley had only himself to answer to.

He says he decided on Timegate for several reasons. First, it didn’t require a breakout box like the Discreet edit* system he was also considering. Second, when he compared the two systems seven months ago, he says the Timegate was capable of 1.6:1 compression while the edit* system was only able to do 3:1 compression.

Woodley adds that he has been pleased with the speed of upgrades. In the short time that he has had it, he says there have been two upgrades, with a third expected by the end of the year. “It seems like a system that continues to grow and continues to get better,” he says.

JVC’s Phillips says this is exactly the kind of perception that it takes to build a brand. “You have to be perceived as being innovative and aggressive in the market,” he says. “We’re still improving but we already have a system that is a serious contender, even against Avid. And it ain’t over yet.”

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