On Sibelius 8, @AvidSibelius, and Caring

I have been using Sibelius as my primary means of music engraving for over 15 years. I begged my parents to buy me a copy, because it was clear to me even at age 14 that Noteworthy Composer was not going to cut the mustard. I had to jump through few hoops to get the education discount, as I was not yet in high school, and my middle school didn’t have any form of student ID that I could photocopy and mail them. (Yes. That was really the procedure.) At some point along the way, I determined that I could afford to buy my own professional software; and, I’ve owned a copy of every version of Sibelius through last year’s Sibelius 7.5.

I tell that story to impress upon you the extent to which I am predisposed to like Sibelius. I know the names of some of the people who were on the Sibelius team; I know prominent users and plugin developers; I have favorite passages from the user manual. (The section called “The Tribulations of Tremolo Notations” cracks me up to this day.) I even like the much-maligned ribbon UI. This is my tool, my way of doing the thing I studied for nine years of college and now teach others to do.

The ribbon replaced some menus that had been virtually unchanged for a decade. I like it, but some users will never forgive this design decision.

This past week, Avid released a New Sibelius. Or Sibelius 8. It’s actually kind of unclear what they want to call it. It’s version 8.x, but they’d really like to drop the numbers, like Adobe has done with their creativity applications. Also, like Adobe, they’d like to push people into subscription-style licenses rather than outright purchases. A regular subscription fee gets you instant access to whatever the latest version of it is.

Sibelius 8/New Sibelius, is — as of this writing — a total pile of garbage to anybody coming from a recent version of the software.

Not a one of the new features is remotely useful, and none of the existing features were altered in a meaningful way. They have added the new license system, which is interesting, but doesn’t change anything about the way the program deals with music. It does add a truly hideous menu bar icon to my Mac, but I have ways of hiding that stuff. It also adds a redesigned keypad palette. Again, nice but not functionally different (and really not much prettier). The most ballyhooed features of the new release are specific to the pen input for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with stylus. If you, like me, use Sibelius on a Mac, there is very nearly no difference between Sibelius 7.5 and Sibelius New 8. If you’re running an older version of Sibelius, the primary thing you’ll notice is the ribbon UI that so many hate. Welcome to the future. That’ll be $89/yr. Or maybe $99/yr. Or maybe it’s $239/yr. It’s really confusing. Here. Take a look at this page to help you figure out which version of Sibelius is right for you. It has seven tables to try to explain the licensing structure. To quote the Sibelius User Guide, “this is bananas.” It sure seems that there are some people at Avid, and especially some people in high-ish, decision-making positions, that simply don’t care about serving their users or doing a good job.

So after spending some time with the new Sibelius, I was pretty astonished at how ill-conceived and unpolished it was. There are several references in the documentation to Sibelius 7 and 7.5; and there are plenty of things that could have been updated quite simply.

For example, why isn’t there a default paper size option for iPad screen? It’s just another entry of dimensions in a table somewhere. There are no inventive new collaboration features: no check-in/check-out behavior of a computer code versioning system; nothing as lively and engaging as the collaborative editing features found in all the major office productivity suites. What new features have been added are of limited utility to me. The helpful quick start video links bring you to tutorials created for Sibelius 7 and narrated by Daniel Spreadbury, who has been working on a competing application for the last two-and-a-half years.

So, being the Internet loudmouth that I am, I took to Twitter to warn off all of my friends and colleagues from this ridiculous moneygrab from our friends at Avid. Avid’s official Twitter account tried to engage me on Twitter. I immediately blasted back and continued firing away, both barrels. I really do think that unveiling and marketing this product as a major release shows disrespect for Sibelius users at best, and hostility toward them at worst.

On my way to teach class today, I got a surprise phone call. From Avid. They figured out who I was, that I had an Avid account, and that account had my phone number in it. Some poor guy had the job of calling me and trying to convince me that this steaming pile was actually a beautiful and functional rose, and that maybe I was simply holding it wrong. I was pretty short with the guy. I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t mad at him, but that I was mad at his company.

I know companies are organized groups of regular people, and there were probably even some nice folks working for Darth Vader, but it’s hard to not paint them all with the same Sith-colored brush. And these are people I should relate to. They, like me, are music notation nerds. They, like me, are software nerds. I want to like Sibelius and the people who make it, even considering my frustration with the current state of the software.

I’ve been reflecting on my Twitter and phone experience with Avid today. To my own surprise, I think this whole interaction is promising, in spite of the half-baked monstrosity it aimed to justify. It shows that even if there are people in charge of the development and marketing of Sibelius that don’t care about users, at least there are some people in the organization that do. My count is currently at one, but I’m an optimist. The fact that some people are listening and reading and interacting with real-world users presents a glimmer of hope that they understand. The new licensing model might not be for everyone, but it does mean that we might be getting some of these things corrected and features added as we go. And if you’re running Sibelius 6 or earlier, there really are some cool things you’re missing out on, even if none of them are hot off the code-compiler anymore. And as I told the poor guy on the phone, my current plan is to avoid Avid products for as long as I can, but I’m open to being convinced. If there are some killer new features in four months time with the release of 8.1, I’ll reconsider my anti-Avid position. But as Sibelius and Finale have pushed each other through rapid innovation cycles, and as Steinberg is preparing a professional scoring application of its own, Avid is going to have to work harder to keep users. They’re not off to a great start in this new era, but there is a lot of football left to play.