Interview With David Diamond – Part 3

This is the third part of an interview series between myself, Ralph Windsor, Editor of DAM News and David Diamond, author of the DAM Survival Guide, founder of The DAM Guru Program and former Marketing Director of vendor, Picturepark.  In this instalment, we discuss Dropbox, the lack of innovation in DAM and DAM Lite, among other topics.  Part one of this interview is also available and also part two.


Ralph Windsor: The lack of innovation in DAM has been discussed at length on DAM News and elsewhere. Do you agree that the DAM software market has more or less stopped innovating and why do you think that might be?

David Diamond: I think innovation has dried up because of the lack of vision that I talked about before. I feel that DAM vendors just don’t have the stomach to do what is really necessary to make Digital Asset Management stick—and that is to insert themselves at the level of the operating system. They need make DAM available where users interact with content.

When you think about it, DAM functionality should have come from Apple or Microsoft—they could have made it work. But instead of making it clear to users why its important to organize content in an intelligent way, they instead went the way of promising global search that can find anything. To this day, I can’t find a damn thing—ever—on a Mac or Windows box, unless I know where I put it, or what I named it. I use the same file management practices today that I learned in the 1990s—this is crazy.

Even if one argues that those OSes were designed before people started thinking about stuff like this, you can still blame Apple and Microsoft—and Google, too—for not building this into their modern systems, like Android, Chrome OS or iOS.

Google Drive and Google Docs are great examples of failures in this area. Why can’t I add custom schemas and usable metadata to the files I create or store there? Instead, they err on the side of keeping things simple to save me from my own stupidity. But in doing so, they permit me to create an archival mess the likes of which I never created on a local operating system.

Ralph Windsor: I understand where you’re coming from, but could you also now say that platforms like Amazon AWS are now almost a kind of de-facto Cloud Operating System? They seem to provide a number of tools and components where the descriptions read almost like specifications for low-level features of a  typical DAM system. For example, they have transcoding, workflow and a lot of stuff like that.  I agree with your point about Apple and Microsoft, but I think maybe things are moving away from them (in their traditional sense) being the custodians of the operating systems that most people will interact with on a daily basis. Would you say Amazon and their ilk are more likely to have this role now, or at least in the near future?

David Diamond: Yes, without question cloud platforms should be on top of this. The question will be whether they will seek to solve Digital Asset Management as a practice, or just pick and choose buzzwords that fool people into thinking they’ve tapped into some magically organized future.

Workflow is a good example of this: What does that work mean? Does it mean that content gets routed based on rules and approvals, and that the routing is managed and monitored; or does it mean Joe gets an email when Emily checks in a file? Really, both are valid workflow goals; but an organization that needs one won’t likely benefit from the other.

So much of the world’s content continues to be produced on Microsoft and Apple systems. And, as I mentioned, even Google environments, which is where I create virtually all of my content these days, fails to provide even the most rudimentary DAM functionality.

In a way, because these heavyweights of content creation have turned their backs on DAM concepts, they have encouraged users to disregard the value DAM can provide. We know the benefit of good industrial design, because Apple showed us; we know the benefit of enterprise readiness, because Microsoft showed us; we know the benefit of anywhere-access, because Google showed us.

But not one of those companies ever tried to show us the benefit of content control and organization beyond simple tags, or the basic file naming and directory concepts they employ, which were developed before the vast majority of those companies’ employees were even born.

Hell, for most people, the concept of metadata wasn’t even known until it was “outed” in discussions of privacy and governmental snooping.

Had Apple, Microsoft or Google started the discussion—or even Dropbox or—we’d be decades ahead of where we are today, in terms of DAM and content management processes and possibilities. Instead, they opted to ignore the need or, in Google’s case, tried to solve the problem with sorcery.

I can recall when people first realized that Google Image Search could find a dog in a photo that was not tagged with “dog.” I think I got a hundred emails that day going on about how DAM was dead because Google could recognize a dog. Of course, it didn’t take long for people to realize that, in the eyes of Google Image Search, a stuffed dog could be a dog, too.   

Unfortunately, DAM system vendors never bothered to solve the most basic DAM promises either. In fairness, maybe I’m wrong; maybe there is a killer DAM system out there and I just don’t know about it because they lack marketing, or whatever.

Ralph Windsor: We’ve looked pretty hard on DAM News and, no, we haven’t found a brilliant one either. It’s a case of picking the best out of a number of not very good options.

David Diamond: Well, if you’ve not seen it and neither have I, it’s probably not there. When I talk to analysts, like Theresa Regli or Irina Guseva, I find they have the same view. This is what happens when you have an entire industry virtually devoid of any vision for how things could be done.

It’s funny: Theresa [Regli] once asked me to join Real Story Group, back when she still worked there. I turned down that offer because I honestly felt that I’d never have anything positive to say about any system I researched. I didn’t want to be known as the guy who hated everything all the time!

Ralph Windsor: Would you consider services like Dropbox to be innovation opportunities that DAM vendors missed?

David Diamond: I’m not sure I would consider them innovations, but they are definitely solid steps toward providing a service whose benefit is understandable.

A number of the folks I work with in the music industry rely on Dropbox or WeTransfer to move content around. They see these as perfect solutions, much in the same way they see their iPhones as the only Mobile platform—they just can’t or don’t want to imagine anything else.

If you compare these services to ftp or email attachments, they’re undeniably awesome; but if you compare them to true Digital Asset Management, they’re lacking—again, mainly on the metadata layer front.

In fact, the DAM vendor that comes out with an option for adding a layer of custom metadata over a Dropbox archive might find itself in a completely new game. I often advocated for the separation of storage and metadata when I worked for my previous employers. Let Dropbox or whomever take possession of the files, I figured. We’d provide a light UI to add custom metadata schemas and provide search based on that metadata. I was told this wouldn’t be well received because companies wanted to have absolute control over their stored content. I didn’t believe it then, and I think the advent of enterprise cloud storage has pretty much proved that companies are willing to trust other companies.

Still we don’t have that solution. And while were at it, how about the same for YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? You can’t tell me there’s no value in being able to build portals to that content, complete with comments and user reactions, all under a metadata schema that makes sense for the organization.

Again, this is about the management and retrieval of content that is not in one’s possession. One of the disappointments I found upon my return to the music business was the realization that no one buys albums anymore. We used to be able to rely on selling a million or so copies of a new record. Today, that’s not nearly as likely because people prefer to stream than buy. And when they do buy, they buy only a few songs at a time.

Meanwhile, DAM vendors continue to assume their customers have possession of all the content they need to manage. Hell, even when people do buy music today, they don’t always download it. It can be just as easy to leave it in the cloud and stream it.

Ralph Windsor:What was your take on the DAM Lite systems that started popping up years back?

David Diamond: What a fiasco that was. Had there been no Dropbox, there would have been no DAM Lite—I’m convinced of that. When DAM vendors started seeing the spoils going to Dropbox, they panicked. Instead of making their core systems less stupid, they stupidly decided to create new systems.

What was frustrating about this was that it seemed that DAM vendors assumed that the success of Dropbox suggested that people wanted systems with fewer features. In fact, people just wanted systems that weren’t so damned stupid and cumbersome.

I think vendors learned their lessons when they realized that people found their Lite systems to be just as stupid as their core systems. Usable doesn’t have to mean simple. Photoshop is not simple—it never has been; but it does a good job of enabling users to use only what they need.

The only voice of reason I can recall hearing during the euphoria of DAM Lite was the then CFO of Canto. While the rest of us were thinking about what a Cumulus Lite might look like, he put together a presentation that showed how, economically, offering a Lite solution wasn’t sustainable. It could be expected to cut into Cumulus sales, and the numbers of customers that would be required to make up for that loss was staggering. Of course, years later, he was gone and they came out with a DAM Lite solution, so I guess we’ll see who was right.

At the very least, it was all an exercise in brand destruction. When you’re trying to convince a market that they need to spend $500,000 to get control of their content, it’s not easy to later suggest that, “or, for $200 a month, we have this new option.” People aren’t that stupid.

Ralph Windsor: So why do you think there is no innovation?

David Diamond: Primarily, I think it’s because you’ve got that lack of vision that prevents DAM vendors from even knowing how to move the needle on what’s possible—they can’t even imagine it. My opinion for why this is will really anger a lot of people, but I don’t think DAM isn’t interesting enough to attract the worlds most brilliant minds.

Sure, there some in the industry who are there by choice—they have ideas and they want to see things improve. But I found far too many people, both on the engineering and business sides, who were there because they had nowhere else to go. They weren’t good enough developers to build the next killer game, or they weren’t smart enough business people to turn a startup into the next Google.

In short, they weren’t inspired. You can’t expect great ideas to come from mediocrity. And if you don’t think mediocrity is rampant in the DAM industry, take another look at the software solutions that are available.

I wrote a piece once that theorized that if DAM didn’t exist, you would invent it. My point was that the need for DAM is so basic and so real that its absence wouldn’t go unnoticed for long. If you accept that premise, then why is it that we have an industry full of “good enough” software solutions, yet no absolutely amazing tools that seduce people into wanting to get content organized.

PowerPoint is a good example of what I mean. I personally think this is one of the clumsiest programs ever created, yet people are addicted to it. No matter what the task at hand, someone thinks a PowerPoint slide deck is needed.

PowerPoint has tapped into some human need to communicate. People feel a sense of accomplishment and validation if what they’re doing can be distilled into a PowerPoint presentation.

So where’s the DAM system that encourages people to invent metadata schemas, build taxonomies, explore synonyms, or even add content? In most of the cases I’ve seen—and I’ve seen many—DAM customers think of their systems as houses of cards that, once operational, should be left alone. Few people want to explore taking things further than absolutely necessary. Few people get creative with DAM.

But I think this could be different with a system that encourages organizational innovation. Organization is not a binary yes/no concept. It’s not like tidying up your room as a child, where there comes a point when you know you’ve done enough to make your parent happy.

Inventing good content structure is about making things possible that were not likely before. It’s about making it easy for content creators and consumers to find the snippets they know they need, while enabling them to stumble upon something that inspires them to try something new.

And I’m not talking about “you might also like” sorts of features. These are tired and virtually pointless. I might look at some particularly stunning guitar in the Facebook Marketplace, only to have Facebook tell me the next day that “more items like the one you looked at are now available.” But when I fall for this clickbait, I see instruments that could be connected only in terms of tags, much like a paper airplane and a 787 are both “airplanes.”

I’m talking about a system that proactively encourages content creation. I don’t want to be told that more pictures of dogs have been added to the system, simply because I searched for “dog” a week ago, while working on a one-time project. But I do want to know when my buddy Ralph, who’s opinion I rate highly, has given five stars to some content, or when an artist I respect has added something.

We need to be able to train DAM systems to think like we think. We don’t need them to assume the obvious. It’s like you go out and buy a green shirt; someone comments on it and you tell them you love your new shirt. That person then tells everyone that, if they want to buy you a great gift, it should be a green shirt because you love green shirts.  

I also want to be able to tell a system what projects are coming up, offering keywords and metadata about those projects. Shouldn’t the system get started finding content ideas before I even sit down to ask? Next week, I’m working on a campaign to promote aviation as a career to young adults—go search the web, stock houses and our archive for material that might help me. That’s enough information to give a human assistant, but when it comes to a DAM system, it seems an almost comical concept. Why?

Instead of thinking along these lines, you have vendors thinking they need to listen to their customers. But DAM customers can’t always articulate what they really need. I guess in the medical community they would refer to it as a deferred pain—my elbow hurts but the problem actually is in my shoulder.

DAM vendors and their partners are supposed to be the experts but, in fact, very few of them know the first thing about what customers are actually trying to do. Instead, they focus on giving customers what they ask for, which customers often realize later was not at all what they needed. In a way, vendor employees function exactly like the systems they develop: Know exactly what to ask me, and you’ll get the answer you need.

You see this particularly in older systems. While they might be packed with many more features than newer systems, it can be downright baffling trying to imagine why some of these features were included, or how someone came to think they should work like they do. Often these features come from customer requests that were developed to solve some very specific use case, but then thrown into the core product to make the “what’s new” doc seem more interesting.

It’s dangerous to follow the lead of customers because customers are mired in their own unique ways of doing things. When something doesn’t work well for a customer, they start asking for magic buttons to compensate. In fact, the real solution might be something much, much bigger, and totally different than what was asked.

For example, a customer might contact a cloud DAM vendor to ask for more storage space. But do they need more space? Is this sustainable? Maybe they just need to standardize on more efficient file formats. Or maybe they need to stop archiving derivatives and use a system that can create them on the fly, when needed.

But you explain this to a customer who has asked for more storage and they respond, “Yeah, maybe; but right now I just need more storage.” The vendor provides it, and everyone moves along, ignoring the fact that some research into content storage efficiencies might have been a good idea.

Imagine a DAM vendor that could show how the same 100,000 files take up 40% less space on its system than on another system. That’s a monthly savings on storage, it can mean faster downloads, etc. Though no current customer might be asking for such a feature, prospective customers might find that to be very interesting thing that tips the scales in favor of that system.

Unfortunately, virtually all DAM vendors would simply sell more storage space. They wouldn’t think to invest R&D efforts into building space reducing technologies, or even advise the customer about workflow changes that could reduce their need for additional storage.

From minds like these come all those new “green shirt” features.

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