The Moving Picture: The Birth of OpenHD
Posted Aug 2, 2005

A decade ago, nonlinear editing system buyers had a choice: save money by building a system from "open system" components or bite the bullet and buy a more expensive professional turnkey system. The great price disparity between the two used to be impossible for independent studios to resist and open systems surged in popularity. But without the benefit of one-stop tech support, it often became a case of pay me now or pay me later.

The industry has come a long way since those early days and the price and feature gap has greatly narrowed. The continually increasing speed and power of computers has alleviated many reliability concerns simply because it's easier for an average system to process large blocks of video data. Today's affordable open-system hardware and software could easily edit circles around the top systems of those early years.

Yet, as open-system products have matured, they have found their way into more professional and time-sensitive situations. Down-time for tech support has gone from unavoidable to almost unacceptable. Ten years ago an event videographer might have been willing to work on the system as a hobby, especially because it offered professional results at such a relatively affordable price. Today, tinkering with a computer is more often just a waste of time.

Higher-end nonlinear editing system makers learned a long time ago that letting customers experiment with different computer configurations is a fool's game. It's a technical support Pandora's Box because it increases the number of possible configuration permutations. It's just not good business, even if it forces the customers to spend a little more money up front. Even amid a robust open-system market, there have always been integration companies that catered to independents by selling bundled systems and providing that one-stop tech support for turnkey systems featuring otherwise open system components.

Such expertise is likely to become quite valuable again as the industry moves toward HD editing. Processing extremely large amounts of HD data very quickly is again taxing the limits of system components and making efficiency critical. To avoid the return of open-system horror stories, several open-system partners led by Adobe have introduced OpenHD Certification, a joint effort to offer pre-tested configurations of HD-capable editing workstations.

Adobe has been the primary proponent of open-system editing for almost 15 years. Premiere has been bundled with dozens of hardware cards, from multimedia to professional quality. Yet, Adobe has historically tended to keep a hands-off approach (publicly anyway) as to not appear to endorse any one hardware maker over another. However, as Premiere Pro has matured, its competition has become more focused. Today, Apple's Final Cut Pro, which only works on Apple hardware, and Avid, which has always posted a list of certified system configurations, have emerged as Adobe's main rivals.

With OpenHD Certification, Adobe in joined by companies like Intel, Microsoft, Dell, and HP in an effort to collectively test and qualify specific system configurations that will work, out of the box, with no hassles. As of the end of July, the openhd.org Web site has listed four configurations built around Dell and HP workstations that are effectively guaranteed to include enough processing power, bandwidth, and storage to edit HDV, Uncompressed HD, Compressed HD in real-time, and uncompressed HD in real-time.

Each system still uses off-the-shelf I/O cards where needed, like BlackMagic Designs' DeckLink, AJA's Xena, or Matrox's Axio hardware. All four use NVidia graphics cards and off-the-shelf audio cards. And each includes both a system hard drive and independent storage for media. Expected pricing is listed on the site.

It all sounds smart and easy for potential buyers. But questions remain about how much value there really is in a certification for a group of companies that would naturally support users who buy their products. Adobe, Dell, HP, Microsoft, and Intel have all done extensive work over the years in building a platform for handling video, from Intel's Architecture Labs to Microsoft's very capable Windows Media division. However, it's unlikely that either company is doing anything for Adobe that doesn't also enhance the Windows platform for any other vendor, including Avid. Dell and HP have each had video editing configurations in the past for both Adobe Premiere and Avid. Adobe, naturally, wants to make Premiere Pro more professional.

Even though these configurations have the blessing of each of the applicable OpenHD companies, you'll still need either to build the system yourself by purchasing the components separately, or to contact a Certified OpenHD reseller (submit your information at openhd.org and a reseller will contact you). In many ways, that's no different from buying a system from an integrator like BOXX Technologies, 1 Beyond, Laird Telemedia, or several others. As yet, it's still a little unclear where tech support will come from for purchasers of Certified OpenHD configurations, although it's expected to be a third-party organization contracted by the OpenHD alliance members.

Without details on service contract costs, hours of operation, and ability to solve problems, OpenHD Certification is really only putting a nice collective face on an open-system problem. It's a step in the right direction and credit is due for the initiative and desire to make things easier. But how all those big name companies actually interact with the independent video producer remains to be seen—and that, after all, is what will really matter.