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, 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

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?

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

  1. I’m thinking you might want to give Motion a try. It’s a keyframe animation tool also made by Apple. Although for some reason I can’t view the images on your site, I think it has what you want in terms of being able to manipulation of multi-layer animations on a timeline.

    Basically, you build an animation out of layers, and you can position beginning and ending points and effects for each layer. Then you can slide them back and forth in time or stretch or compress them like taffy. It’s a really flexible interface and system. You can also use keyframe animation to move them, and use pre-built effects called behaviors to change them.

    I found it really cool and very easy to use for what it does.

    Hope that helps.


  2. My bet/hope would be that Apple is going to turn Keynote into a consumer-level HTML5 authoring tool with the next release. This would call for an extensively reworked timeline as well (see “Hype” from the Mac Appstore). Maybe we’re even going to see “Magic Move”-like features for element properties or similar keyframe-based animation techniques. This, together with HTML5 compliant export funtions could than replace the discontinued iWeb for basic 3page websites with awesome animations. Just my 2 cents but boy do I hope I’m right 😉

  3. Les, any thoughts on how Apple might be able to configure Keynote ’12 (since, really, it’s getting a little too mid-year for ’11) for both amateurs / people who don’t care and Pros? A toggle-able “pro” interface? Keynote and Keynote Pro?

    While many of us are crying out for advanced features and tools, there are a great many out there who really can’t handle anything complicated (hmm… which means they’re probably using PowerPoint anyway, so who cares, right?).

  4. What you want in Keynote is more granular and precise timing and sequencing. Traditional timeline is not necessarily the best method for that, also as evidenced by Apple abandoning it in more recent apps like iMovie and FCP X.

    The ideal is event-based orchestrating through messaging. mTropolis did that when Adobe led timeline was all the rage in interactive authoring back in the day. Apple also had Kaledia Script X as well.

    So I hope they come up with something better than timelines, especially for the average Keynote user.

    • Yes, I want something better than traditional timelines, but where I can have the precise control over events within a slide, as well as across events on the slide in relation to each other… if that makes sense.

  5. Number 4 is broken at an even deeper level. While images can have names, shapes cannot. If you dig into the xml, there’s not even a value that can be set for shapes. I’ve tried 🙂 I haven’t checked to see if you can rename “Group 1” etc. to something else though, just to see if it could be done.

  6. Alastair @ Useful Design

    Les, I can possibly help out in that if you want to stay in KN app. (Bonix and Motion are great though.) Let’s talk about what you features need most. Some KN limitation will still apply obviously.

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