How Avid came to Apple.

avid1The annual SIGGRAPH convention was a melting pot of the latest in graphics and animation. Digital F/X had already demonstrated its DF/X 200 Digital Production System at the 1988 NAB conference, and with several months of refinement it debuted a shipping product from its booth. CEO Steve Mayer described it as:

…a video post-production system aimed at editors who wanted to enhance their material using special effects, paint and video typography tools included with the system’s software…to take all the pictures you’ve gotten from the field and put them together with all the special effects to tell a story in an interesting way.

Digital F/X collaboration with Apple stopped with Steve Jobs’ departure but Mayer was succinct with the press:

We’re not tied to a particular platform. From a purely practical standpoint when we started working on the system, there wasn’t an open Mac. 

General manager Chuck Clarke recalls the engineering that was required to deliver professional video on Windows.

Of course we were using the latest 386 chips because they could handle multitasking, that’s why we had chosen them but the O/S wasn’t as capable so we had to write a custom version of DOS. The API layer, which we called Virtual Video Interface (VVI), separated the hardware from DOS and Windows. When you switched from say the real time effects mode to the paint system you were switching state from the Effects DOS to the Paint DOS to the title DOS all with Windows on top. 

We figured Microsoft would fix this, eventually.

Apple CEO John Sculley visited Digital F/X, and within weeks Apple had joined Adobe, Intel, Kleiner-Perkins, and others as an investor. Mayer told the press:

I think it reflects Apple’s commitment and shows its interest in multimedia. We have a common interest in how computers and video work together.

Even with its renewed interest in desktop video, Apple’s first professional editing tool would not come from Digital F/X. It would come from a tiny start-up just yards away. A company that was not even using Apple hardware. The Avid team set up a prototype system inside the 1988 SIGGRAPH booth of their former employer Apollo Computer. Bill Warner recalls:

It didn’t really edit or do much, it was used to playback a series of images to create a ‘single’ image across multiple video monitors.

Eric Peters recalls:

It was designed to kind of mislead people a bit. 

Apple product manager Tyler Peppel was also at SIGGRAPH.

I went along to the Avid demonstration, and spoke with Bill Warner. The functionality of their device was very limited but very exciting and running on an Apollo workstation. I told Bill, ‘You have the right application but the wrong hardware’. He asked me ‘What do you mean?’. I told him that I worked for Apple and that Avid was made for the Mac but I could sense that Bill thought the Mac was a toy.

The chance encounter was foremost in Tyler Peppel’s mind when he returned to Apple in California. He wanted to convince Bill Warner that the Macintosh was more than capable of handling video, and he decided that there was only one way to do it.

Tyler Peppel spoke with his Apple Computer colleague Michael Tchao:

Michael and I decided to immediately send our most powerful computer at the time, the Mac IIx, to Bill Warner’s office in Burlington so that it was there when he returned from the SIGGRAPH show. We were so excited that we sent them to Avid, at no charge.

The Avid team returned to Boston from SIGGRAPH, and found a large delivery waiting for them. Curt Rawley recalls what happened on that fateful day:

We came to work that day, and here were two Apple Mac IIx’s that had been FedEx’d to our office. We thought, “what do we do with these things?” Surely they can’t do video, they must be slower than the Apollo workstations that we knew so well. 

Despite their reservations they set up the two Mac IIx computers as Eric Peters recalls:

The Macintosh computers we received weren’t even released product yet; they didn’t even have cases. They were brand new, pre-release machines, and each one had two monitors. We had never seen a computer with two monitors before!  Then within a day or so we got a knock on the door from a fellow named George Maydwell who told us he was Apple’s representative to help us port our code to the Mac OS. 

We were just blown away by all of that.

The monthly excerpt from John Buck’s book, ‘Timeline’. Available at iBooks and Amazon


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