Whither iLife?

Am I missing something here? Can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps a headcount of iLife 11’s new features is in order?

Let’s see, then. iPhoto? Check. iMovie? Check. GarageBand? Check. iTunes? No, hang on, sorry, that one stopped being an iLife feature ages ago. That leaves ... iDVD? Oh, now we’re getting somewhere. And ... iWeb? Yep, now it’s all clear to me. Something is definitely amiss. Like two apps completely being ignored kind of amiss.

You’ll pardon my cynicism, I hope, because not only is something amiss, but there’s something on the nose as well.

Let’s visit the not-too-distant past, when iLife was the central plank in Apple’s plan to provide a beautifully integrated set of media creation and management tools that also worked well to woo new users from the dark side. Back then, Apple didn’t focus much on the prowess of its consumer-grade hardware, preferring instead to impress potential new customers with what you could do with a Mac. Who remembers Jobs’ “chain of pain” pitch about iPhoto? The simplicity with which iPhoto could eliminate the horrors of a digital image workflow was typical of iLife’s capabilities and at the crux of what appealed to many switchers.

If I recall correctly, it worked. Or at least it did when I showed the iLife suite to PC-using friends of mine. They were impressed with the integration, the simplicity, the whole box and dice. Some of them even bought Macs because of it.

However, if I were about to proselytise for the Mac today, with a copy of iLife '11 as ammo, I expect I’d be a little embarrassed because Apple doesn’t seem to be as committed as it once was to this particular cornucopia of digital goodness.

How exactly would I go about explaining to a PC user that the latest iLife update is only 60 per cent there? Did Apple just lose interest? Perhaps the Cupertino team had something better to do? They may well have, such as building an app store for Mac Lion. Come to think of it ... no, hang on, hold that thought ... the Mac App Store killing off iLife is a whole other train of thought worth coming back to later.

I can understand that iDVD didn’t get any new features. The challenge with DVD creation software is the scope of creativity you can apply to authoring a DVD is a wee bit hemmed in by the specifications governing the media. Yet while new functionality can’t really be bolted on within the constraints of keeping the software consumer-friendly, it’s surprising that Apple couldn’t throw in a bunch of new themes, as indeed it has done with previous iLife release. Gosh, Apple couldn’t do even that much. The fact iDVD has no new features whatsoever has that special flavour about it that comes out of Cupertino every now and then. It tastes like we’ve-moved-on-and-so-should-you-so-shut-the-hell-up-about-it. What, haven’t you people heard? Nobody does DVDs anymore.

Well, actually, people do. I’m doing one right now. Having shot my source in HDV I would have preferred to author a Blu-ray but, well ... you know how that story ends. In any case, I’m lucky enough to have DVD Studio Pro to author it with, so I don’t need iDVD. Had I been hoping for a fresh menu theme in iDVD to give my authoring effort a little more polish I would be, as they say, SOL. And a bit PO, because if I had paid the full price for the upgrade (due to a recent hardware purchase I qualified for a freebie) I would reasonably expect that the whole suite got some new bits. It’s not too much to ask, surely? I mean, it’s not as if Apple is so strapped for cash that it had to cut back on a software engineering team. Right?

So, leaving iDVD behind — and I don’t really mind leaving it behind because there’s not a very strong argument to be made for new features — brings us to iWeb. That iWeb was similarly left standing at the altar by its team leader is a great mystery.

Apple has been one of the most, if not the most, vocal supporters of the HTML5 standard. It also has been a vehement toe-cutter of Flash. It also has been building new features into MobileMe of late, and we all know the company is building a behemoth of a data centre in North Carolina, the purpose for which has not yet been made clear. It might be just a vanilla-flavoured data centre. Or it may be the hub of an ambitious conglomeration of web services into which the iLife 11 suite could not be dovetailed without showing Apple’s hand. We shall soon see which way those cards fall.

Put all of that into an equation and the product should be something along the lines of a bold new iWeb release, with not only the potential to dazzle its users with functionality that has long been missing (synced editing on more than one Mac, anyone?) but a showcase for Apple; a consumer-grade site-building app that  could be brandished as a banner for progress... “we believe in HTML5 and here’s all of its power and wonder in the palm of your hand”.

Or not. Perhaps Apple isn't so committed to HTML5 after all?

So what’s the message? Foregoing the possibility that Apple has a game-changer waiting in the wings — say, system-wide web publishing tools built into OS X Lion — I’m left coddling a familiar disappointment because iLife '11, while it has a few new bits and bobs, just doesn’t come close to the feature leaps of previous iterations. Worse yet, iLife '11 is a bit lacklustre. Not only are iDVD and iWeb untouched, but iPhoto was actually destructive to users’ libraries prior to the (astonishingly quickly released) 9.0.1 update. GarageBand has a couple of features that bring a little polish but why have we had to wait so long to see any new music lessons? As for iMovie, the improvements are so incremental that the whole 11 suite adds up to one big “meh”.

Consequently, whether Apple is trying to send a message or not, I’m left wondering what happens next.

Will iLife '12 offer no new features in GarageBand? And iLife '13, will it have iDVD at all? Will either of these releases even happen? You know, I reckon ignoring 40 per cent of the apps in the iLife '11 suite feels like the thin end of the wedge.

Should this be surprising? The iLife suite was a great product in an age when the data cloud had no real meaning for most of us. It was a product for its time and a very good one at that. Times change, though. User needs and habits evolve, and you get to a point where a set of software tools arrives at the end of its evolutionary cycle and simply fades away.

Apple is perhaps prepping us for a new direction in software purchasing; one that doesn’t tie its software teams into delivering a regular iLife update. It might be progress, though calling it as much doesn’t fetter the disappointment of having your favourite software tools consigned to a slow death.

My strongest expectation is that iLife '11 will be the last upgrade to this suite any of us buy, or perhaps the penultimate one. I may be wrong but I’m willing to wager that a few years down the track, Apple will be issuing an advisory that it no longer officially supports iLife software at all.