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Extensis Update Portfolio For 2017

by Ralph Windsor on July 21, 2017

DAM vendor, Extensis  announced an update to their Portfolio DAM solution earlier this week.  This is the press quote from Toby Martin, whose job title is ‘Vice President of Development and Strategy’ (which sounds like he has to deal with all the jobs at Extensis that no one else there wants to):

Extensis’ ongoing mission is to advance the practice of DAM. From making it usable for organizations of all sizes, to early investments in game changing technologies such as artificial intelligence, our goal is to elevate the value and impact of digital assets.  With Portfolio 2017, we’re propelling this to the next level by introducing high-quality file compression, powerful zoom and mapping capabilities. These features will open new possibilities for the traditional DAM market, and extend the value of DAM into new workgroups and industries such as Geospatial, Infrastructure, Departments of Transportation, Tourism, Agriculture, and Engineering, to name a few.” [Read More]

As DAM PR soundbites go, this isn’t that bad.  There is certainly room for improvement (I would have advised against using descriptions like ‘game changing’, for example) but points should be awarded for relevance and offering some practical reasons to use the latest edition that users can relate to. As is often the case,  the blog post about the new release is more useful than the PR for drilling down into what you will get as a use.  The video included with the press release is quite useful to see more (albeit I preferred to watch with the musical audio accompaniment switched off).

The run-down of enhancements is as follows:

  • New desktop client
  • Integration with FADEL
  • Updated integration with Clarifai
  • Mapping and GPS coordinate integration
  • Image compression
  • Server-side scripting

The first item, the new desktop client seems a lot like Extensis backing out of some blind-alleys they followed in the past.  Portfolio is one of the oldest DAM product brands that is still actively developed and marketed.  Culling features is one of these dilemmas that all legacy vendors must face when they upgrade platforms and (based on Toby’s description) they were either over-aggressive about this in earlier releases or faced technical challenges that could not get solved before previous iterations had to ship.  While I could criticise them for their earlier transgressions, they have at least listened to users, dealt with the issues and been up-front about them.

The FADEL integration seems like a reasonable addition. Apart from some work I’ve been involved with in the past troubleshooting custom APIs for rights management purposes, this isn’t a subject area I frequently deal with, so I can’t comment on FADEL as an application, however, I do know rights management workflows can be highly complex and intricate.  Integrating Portfolio with a specialist vendor’s platform rather than custom building something in-house would therefore appear to make a lot of sense and something other vendors should contemplate before they get involved with hand-rolling their own tools to deal with this requirement.

The subject of AI and keywording in DAM (especially with reference to Clarifai) has been dealt with already on DAM News.  The summary of my evaluations of these tools (including the one by Google) is that they don’t work that well unless your subject matter is generic and the kind of stuff that would not be out of place in stock photo libraries.  Most DAM users (especially those in enterprises) have far more specific material which does not lend itself well to the primitive pattern recognition methods employed (and the lack of a true learning/feedback loop).  Based on previous analysis of Clarifai’s updates, they have recently worked out that if they can focus the recognition around a particular subject, they can improve the quality of the results.  As such, they have started to introduce modules to deal with different subjects, but there are nowhere near enough for this to be practical for the kind of material that appears in most corporate DAMs.  In relation to the Portfolio update, it looks like Extensis have added interface options to direct Clarifai to use the aforementioned modules (if they are enabled).  Notice also the warning in the video about the licence implication of proceeding with a recognition, i.e. Portfolio users who utilise these tools will get charged for them – a point to check in terms of both the cost basis and amounts applied.

The mapping and GPS coordinates might well be of interest to some users, although I’m not sure if they are as innovative as their description suggests.  The quote from the blog post is “one of the first of its kind feature in DAM where you can automatically plot files with GPS metadata on a map so you can see and search visually by point of origin.”  Numerous other DAM systems will extract the GPS coordinates from the embedded EXIF metadata stored in photos taken on mobile phones and cameras that also offer this feature.  Many link off to something like Google Maps to show you where a shot was taken (and a good number will record the longitude and latitude as separate fields so you can search them too, including rationalising those to named countries or regions) .  Extensis seem to use a slicker mapping interface than the Google Maps variants I have seen, along with reveals for satellite images etc, but it’s hard to tell what the functional differences are.  I have seen quite a number of other DAM systems which also present map interfaces to allow users to locate photos by dragging out areas on a map (in the same manner as quite a few property websites offer).  This is well-presented and will probably be of use to some, but you can get the same capabilities from other products available.

The three previous feature points seem fairly lightweight and integration-oriented.  Extensis have essentially just provided an interface and some plumbing/wiring of the data from a third party service provider.  There isn’t anything wrong with that and it’s not a million miles away from what we have talked about on DAM News recently in terms of the future direction of DAM platforms.  The next two items are rather different, although the scripting feature does relate back to this point (as I will discuss).

The image compression feature appears confused in terms of its objectives and and what purpose it serves.  According to Extensis, this component compresses images to 5% of their original size.  My personal take on content-oriented digital assets is that the original file is sacrosanct and you should never modify it.  The video appears to suggest that you can replace the original with the compressed option and they offer a justification for this based on storage costs saved.  Generating renditions, derivatives or proxies etc (call them what you will) isn’t a problem, but altering the original is dangerous because if the technology fails, you risk losing the only available copy and possibly won’t find out about it for some time (and at the same time when the significance of the asset in question has just increased substantially).  Further anything like hashes and checksums that might be used to identify whether an asset is unique etc will not work properly any longer.  It is true that you can store these elsewhere prior to compression, but then what happens if the database and the file get separated from each other?  Similarly, it would be theoretically possible to move the original files into cold storage or use Amazon Glacier etc, but this limits the savings made on storage costs.

Altering original asset files introduces a range of potential risks if something occurs which the developers didn’t think of – which isn’t exactly unheard of in the software industry.  Extensis have used some fairly dubious calculations about typical storage costs to justify this feature, specifically, they talk about costs being $3,000 per terabyte.  Even taking into account the higher cost of enterprise storage like SANs, multiple Cloud storage providers etc, that number seems about ten years out of date to me and the current cost is probably a lot less.

I can see the benefit of a high resolution image as a proxy for viewer controls etc in preservation use-cases where the users need a very good preview and may not have access to Photoshop etc to view an original file or downloading it could take too long.  The justification for this feature has become confused, however and I suspect a degree of post-rationalisation has occurred which is, at best, slightly esoteric and at worst, risky.

The final item is server-side scripting.  I see Toby refers to this as being one of his personal favourites and I would agree with him.  Many less technically-inclined users might not know or care much about this feature, however, those involved in implementing DAM solutions using vendor technologies should find it a very useful addition.  For the uninitiated, server-side scripting means that Portfolio can be extended by an independent developer to provide automation or custom facilities.  The scripts are de-coupled from the core application so that if Extensis subsequently extend Portfolio, they will still work (or at least should not require substantial modification).

Anyone who has designed and/or implemented complex, large-scale enterprise DAM solutions involving multiple technologies where the DAM platform was only one component of many should realise the value of this feature.  It goes beyond just having an API and allows third parties to utilise the facilities of a DAM, but without the maintenance headaches (and costs) of an entirely custom-built solution and still enables the rest of the platform (such as the user interface) to be used simultaneously.  A few vendors have understood the potential of features along the same lines as this and grasped that they won’t be able to provide everything that every user wants (nor should they see it as a business objective to do so).  In terms of DAM solutions gravitating towards a role that is more like the control centre to integrate DAM services this is a very good strategic move.  We have had scripting as a feature point on our DAM vendor directory for some time now; not enough products genuinely have these capabilities, so it’s positive to see Extensis recognising the need for this.

If it were not for the server-side scripting, this release of Portfolio would be a below average update.  The FADEL integration is the item I would rank as next highest in value, the rest are maintenance oriented, gimmicky or of dubious benefit.  I am not going to give this an unequivocal thumbs-up for the various issues discussed already, but it is a bit like my assessment of their press soundbite at the top of the article, i.e. ‘not bad’.  If nothing else, it does indicate Extensis are thinking about the direction of travel for the wider DAM solutions market and that makes them still worth checking out as an option to consider.

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