Monthly Archives: July 2011

Rethinking Apple’s Keynote presentation software: the need for a timeline feature which shows Apple design and engineering at its finest

It’s nice to know a week after I suggested it in this blog that well-known blog, Cult of Mac, has also written a day or two ago that it too believes we may see a re-write of Keynote much like has occurred for Final Cut Pro X.

The hint it took would appear to be an advertisement for a user interface engineer to join the iWork team. Me, it comes from close observation of Apple as well as having presented to a section of the iWork team with regard to how I think about presenting, using Keynote, and where Keynote needs to go next.

One of the things I expressed most forcefully on my meeting in Pittsburgh two years ago was the need for Keynote to have better timing assembly and control both within slides and across slides.

The feedback I received indirectly, and which continued when  members of the Keynote team attended my Presentation Magic workshops at Macworld, was that it was high priority. If I could read between the lines, the fact that it has not occurred even after five editions of Keynote was not that it wasn’t important but that it needed to be done right.

Right in Apple’s vernacular normally means that the senior executives approve it, and in Keynote’s case, since we see it so often used to tell Apple’s story, it’s in Steve Jobs’ hands to give ultimate ascent to any published improvements.

As Keynote has grown in sophistication these past eight years, playing leap frog with its sandpit buddy, Powerpoint for Windows and Mac, as well as new kid on the block, Prezi, the demands for high quality presentations has increased, perhaps stimulated by the popularity of sites like TED.com, with its host of wonderful speakers .

I don’t include Slideshare and its ilk in this list because of their static nature, and its emphasis on the slides themselves, and not the presentation.

Why the emphasis on a Timeline?

While presentations, especially in the sciences, remain static, the need for a timeline is low to none. So are transitions and even builds for that matter to judge by the vast majority of science-based presentations I witness at conferences and workshops. If animations are used, it’s usually done so appallingly to bring text in or out. The academic or scientist stands at a podium staring at their Dell or HP laptop or a 17″ monitor hooked into the conference venue’s central server, and hits the mouse, spacebar, or right arrow to advance the next slide or build, if there are builds.

But with Keynote’s attractive and different builds, themes, and transitions crying out for their use, especially when others at the same conference are using good ol’ fashioned Powerpoint, the need for more accurate timings of the eye catching, and potentially more engaging and persuasive message delivery has become increasingly important.

Powerpoint has had timelines for a while now, but only in its Windows product. And even there it’s buried away. While I’ve demanded a timeline for Keynote, and I have played with Powerpoint for Windows (more toyed with it) I can’t say anything positive or negative about it. Indeed, not many people do, even on those blogs dedicated to Powerpoint. If you google “timeline in Powerpoint” you’ll come up with thousands of websites about how to created a slide showing a timeline effect in Powerpoint, or templates to do likewise, but very few about the functional timeline Powerpoint possesses.

One great PPT site is the UK’s m62, and below is a screenshot of how PPT2007 shows its timeline.

You can see the movie and description from which this was taken here.

But it’s clear that the way the Powerpoint engineers have stuck the advanced timeline away as an option that it’s not considered terribly important. I could be even more harsh with Keynote since one doesn’t exist at all!

In fact, if you have a long list of builds on any one slide, you’ll know that changing the timing for one will effect the timings of those builds before and after. And as I have discovered recently, these timings are not rock solid; they seem to be somewhat flexible, such that for one mission critical keynote I had to export the slide to a Quicktime movie and then import the result onto another slide so that with one click all the timings would be spot on permanently since I was playing a movie.

Now it’s not as if Apple has no expertise in creating functional timelines.

Starting with the original iMovie 1.0, its software has been dominated by timelines which leap off the page as central to the workflow for the application.

Below, an image of iMovie 4 and its timeline, not too different from the original iMovie 1.0.

Later in iLife, with the introduction of Garageband, amateurs got their first taste of using multiple audio timelines, and iDVD can be considered another amateur’s example. And of course in all the professional variations of Final Cut Pro suite, the timeline is the dominant feature for FCP, Motion, DVD Studio Pro, and Soundtrack Pro.

To go the other direction, iMovie on the iPhone and iPad further demonstrates Apple is very capable of easy to use, functional timelines, (below, from tested.com)

Outside of Apple, few have bettered the timeline implementation experience than the Boinx software folks, with their Fotomagico software as well as BoinxTV, and iStopMotion (below).

And here is Fotomagico’s interface, with multiple graphics manipulations in the one window (note the two rotary dials above the timeline):

The other area in which specific timelines has become a very important asset is screen movies, where one is trying to teach the use of software in real time as it were, by recording mouse and window manipulations in real time, with a voice over recorded live or added later, plus special effects like call outs.

I use ScreenFlow for my own training, and here’s an example in action (not me, however!):

I think by now you get the idea. There is no shortage of models, good and not so good, for the development of a timeline in Keynote where the timing of events within and across slides can be precisely manipulated.

For me, I’d say it has become my #1 essential element in any Keynote update on the horizon (there are several #2s, including call outs, QT movie manipulation and effects within Keynote, improved masking, etc.)

That said, what are the essential elements a timeline in Keynote should do?

1. It ought to provide a live preview of the effect in question, such that it displays in both real time, as well as being scrubbable so that I can see what happens before and after in rapid time. Too often now, I have to wait minutes before I get to see if my current build on a busy slide needs to be tweaked by a second or two.

2. This means I should be able to see a build or effect in the middle of a slide’s sequence, not have to go back to the beginning each time I make an adjustment.

3. I should be able to see multiple builds and actions in relation to each other, much like I can with Garageband’s multiple tracks, where I can see where one starts and one ends precisely.

4. Currently, the builds when individual elements are grouped to act as one are broken. That is, while each element gets its own name, when grouped, each group is simply named “Group.” You have no idea which group the name refers to: not even Group 1, Group 2 etc to give some idea of which group is being worked on. This also causes much headaches when figuring out which group is front or back.

5. For some time now, Powerpoint has allowed a sound file to play as a transition takes place. While a minor consideration, there are number of times when I have wanted to employ not just a visual but an auditory metaphor when transiting slides. This also goes for having the one track play across several slides for continuity. If you want this now in Keynote, you have to crowd all the elements onto one slide, with one track of music per slide.

6. A well constructed timeline would also make it see much easier to follow and select out individual elements on a complicated, multi-build slide which currently is a virtual nightmare of force forward and back to gain control. The Inspector is little help here currently. If I am right in thinking Keynote will get the Final Cut X treatment, the Inspector will be the first to go and be completely redesigned.

These are some of my thoughts on timelines and Keynote. Perhaps for you, it’s not important and other feature sets cry out for implementation. But given the level of work needed to bring these ideas into a future version of Keynote, I am becoming more and more convinced a redesign is necessary. The length of time between updates provides more evidence that this is the case.

Your thoughts?

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Apple updates Keynote 09 to include new features for Lion; two new builds noted

Having updated today to Lion, one of the first things I then did was check Software Update. There ready to be downloaded was a 96MB update to Keynote 09. No, not a new Keynote, just an update for Lion feature compatibility including auto save, full screen, resume and soon to come, iCloud features.

But hidden inside keynote are two builds which we have seen demoed in recent Apple Keynotes.

One build in features an image or word dropping and kicking up dust, which Keynote calls “Anvil”; and the second is a build out for text only, which is referred to as “Fall Apart”, where the word’s letters seems to individually break away from the main word and fall. We saw this effect when Steve Jobs first showed the iPad 1 in January 2010 and contrasted it with the current crop of netbooks. The Anvil drop has since been once of the most used builds in subsequent Apple keynotes.

A cursory look through Keynote’s transitions shows nothing new, and layout of the inspector and thus feature set is still Keynote 09.

The waiting for Keynote X or 11 continues…

Will Apple do to the next Keynote what it just did to Final Cut Pro? A complete redesign? Me? I certainly hope so…

If plentiful rumours hold to be true, in the next 72 hours we may well see Mac OS X Lion released into the wild. As I write this, it has just become July 14 in Australia, Bastille Day for Francophiles.

How timely would it be that a software which has leant itself to revolutionary products would be updated on a day which recognises freedom and independence? It would be a fitting acknowledgment of the contribution to OS X (and NeXT before it) of retiring Apple senior VP, Bertrand Serlet. Personally, I think Steve Jobs is something of a Francophile, having featured crosses to Paris when first demonstrating iChat at Macworld many years ago, as well as featuring the Eiffel Tower when showing off the iPhone’s Google maps in 2007.

The rumours of Lion’s imminent release gathered further credence in the last day or so with the updating of iLife’s elements, including curiously iWeb and iDVD which some have presumed are to be end-of-lifed soon.

And of course with Lion imminent, iLife updated and iCloud waiting in the wings, thoughts to turn iWork being updated.

It’s been two years now, and amongst other things, online training has become a billion dollar business. I have managed to convince my own professional society not to go with a Continuing Education online program which features Adobe Flash, so as to encourage more members to become mobile users of its website where the training is undertaken.

While I wasn’t able to convince them to use Keynote to create the training, it’s my belief more and more organisations will see Apple’s inexpensive application as offering real advantages for creating engaging presentations.

But now I’m going to stick my neck out and ponder the likelihood of Apple doing a “Final Cut Pro X”: that is, a radical rethink and repurposing of Keynote to meet the needs of modern presenters.

We know that many professional video editors have expressed sincere unhappiness with the new version of FCP, while others have expressed admiration for Apple’s desire to change familiar programs in the belief they can be significantly improved, but only with a complete rewrite and rethinking.

I for one will not be surprised if this same event occurs for Keynote in the next few days. While much of its energy has been expended on Keynote for the iPad, the small Keynote team has also been working on Keynote for the desktop to judge from keynotes delivered at Apple events in the past year.

While we’ve seen nothing radical in its effects, we haven’t been exposed to how Keynote is constructing these presentations. I’m going to offer an educated guess that one of Keynote’s most requested items, a timeline to better manage events on a slide as well as across multiple slides, will make its appearance, and will require a completely new look-and-feel. I’m aware from discussion with the Keynote team this has been a high priority but a difficult one to institute to match the velvety smooth workflow Keynote offers when compared to Powerpoint.

For instance, in the last day to two, I’ve once more had to resurrect a slide I constructed for a consultee. It’s a complex slide, incorporating several movies, builds and a voice over narration.

The builds require precise timing to match the voice over. But moving from one Mac to another and with repeated playings, the timings become inconsistent. Moreover, when adopting the workaround of exporting the slide to a Quicktime movie, the timings become even more bizarre. The best handling of this dilemma is to play the slide manually while recording a screen movie using something like Screenflow.

This is hardly the best solution for a professional software. Having a sophisticated timeline device to manage multiple media and their ins and outs is a truly missing piece of the presentation puzzle for Keynote to overcome. Professional users really don’t need that many more themes, transitions and builds styles, but better management of existing ones.

Other desirable elements include editing of sound and video within the Keynote slide. Editing currently is terribly crude, allowing for alteration of beginnings or endings, but altering something in the middle or multiple edits requires the user to head to an external app and do the editing there, and re-import  the finished file.

While masking and Alpha masking photos has been a terrific addition to the most recent Keynote (2009), Powerpoint has caught up, and Apple needs to lift its game and improve the Alpha masking for finer detail. Moreover, it truly needs to find a way to perform masking for the moving image. We know Apple can do it judging from its recent efforts with masking with iChat, due to be updated in Lion.

And of course, exporting Keynote to another format, such as Powerpoint or Quicktime is a very hit and miss affair. With iCloud and document updating and perhaps some extra features in Lion to come, Keynote’s sharing abilities will also be enhanced.

We’ll know hopefully in the next little while whether the long wait for a new Keynote has been worthwhile. But given Apple’s history with successful apps., such as Final Cut and iMovie, whereby an inspired worker can initiate a radical shift in work flow, resulting in upset professionals, I won’t be at all surprised if we soon see a new Keynote with familiar features left out. But I’d expect that in time, with new features added which simply couldn’t be managed in the old but familiar version, long-time Keynote users will manage the transition with aplomb.

After all, some people did amazing things with Keynote 1.0 when it was released in 2003, coming as it did as a breath of fresh air when compared to the dominant Powerpoint. It’s eight years later, and it’s time for a new look and feel Keynote which takes presenting to whole other level.

Comments invited below.