Developing Fault Lines In The Fragmenting World Of Digital Asset Management

Yesterday, CMSWire ran an article  Five Reasons Why DAM is No Photoshop written by David Diamond, author of the The DAM Survival Guide, Marketing Director of Picturepark and contributor to DAM News.  David looks at why Photoshop has been more successful as a product than the entire DAM industry combined. The main points include:

  1. Lack of vendor imagination
  2. Lack of understanding of customer’s needs
  3. System lock-in and poor interoperability between products
  4. Too many ‘DAM Ghettos’
  5. DAM isn’t considered ‘sexy’ and fails to inspire end users

This is from the fourth point: “Splintered Marketplace”:

The notion of a “Photoshop for Marketing Assets” and a “Photoshop for Brand Assets” sounds ridiculous because Photoshop can be used for all types of image assets. But so can digital asset management. So why do we have so many whatever asset management subcategories?  DAM vendors think it’s a good idea to “ghettoize” product offerings into unique categories, but doing so just causes market confusion that discourages prospects from moving forward with their DAM, MAM, BAM and VAM initiatives.” [Read More]

This is probably one of the best pieces I’ve read about Digital Asset Management for a while. It is a long-overdue critical assessment of our sector and sums up many of the reasons why DAM has taken so long to acquire anything close to momentum (and still is far less widespread than it should be).

As well as David Diamond’s article, there was a related item last month published in by David Gewirtz: My infuriatingly unsuccessful quest for a good media asset management tool. This covers some related ground, albeit more from the perspective of the frustrated prospective DAM end user.

There are some other factors with DAM which have made the market more complicated which I think are worth discussing also as they might offer some insight into how it might develop. David’s use of Photoshop as a benchmark is a good choice as it is one of these products which most involved with our sector will have some experience of. Unlike Photoshop, I don’t think there is some massive undiscovered opportunity for a single operator to come in and clean up as a result, but there are some pointers about what needs to be done to ensure DAM is more relevant to end user’s needs.

Users Think DAM Is Boring
When you speak to end users, for many, using DAM is like one of these chores that you would like to put off, but know you can’t for much longer, a lot like clearing out your loft or garage. Although there is bound to be some valuable and even interesting stuff, a lot will be worthless junk, you just don’t know until you have rolled up your sleeves and commenced the arduous task of sifting through it.

Using DAM Systems Is Not Considered A Creative Activity
Using Photoshop is a creative exercise, cataloguing assets in DAM systems feels more like doing bookkeeping with an accounts package (see my previous point). David makes the equally valid comparison with dental floss.

DAM is essentially a maintenance task for most end users that is required to allow other activities to operate more productively. While developers can add coloured buttons, spinning animations and more practical enhancements, like batch tools etc, nothing get away from the fact that you are carrying out functions that librarians, or at best, museum curators, were historically more familiar with. While the latter might have some interesting artefacts or photos of a historical significance, the typical corporate DAM has less than fascinating material like videos of repairs being carried out to drainage systems or pack-shots of packaging materials etc.

DAM Is An Emerging Technology Market
Photoshop has a relatively affordable price, until very recently, it was sold as boxed software. When Photoshop was launched in 1990 there were a number of bitmap editing applications for the Mac and a clear, proven demand for them. Photoshop just did it better than all the alternatives. Adobe was already a relatively sizeable tech business specialising in the graphics segment with existing earnings that they could invest.

For these reasons, 20 years ago, as an investible proposition, an application to re-touch images would have been easier to sell to senior managers and shareholders than ‘media library’ products like DAM. It is telling that it has taken Adobe 20 years to do much more than dip their toes into the DAM market. They have several different applications that either claim to be DAM solution directly or have many of the key features of them (and no doubt they will continue to hedge their bets across the whole range for some time to come).

DAM Popularity Is Predicated On Digital Capture Devices
A typical workflow for a Photoshop user until fairly recently would have involved scanning a source photo. It is not until you get usable digital cameras available at affordable prices in around 2003 or 2004 that the whole process starts to become exclusively digital. This is the point where DAM starts to become essential, because there is more digital content lying around – with no one knowing where it is and no physical search fallback where you could re-scan the transparency again.

The Enterprise Bias In DAM
The initial lack of demand for DAM has generated a situation where vendors target enterprise users because they know they can more easily sell into that segment and recoup the cost of development with lower risk. In the late nineties, my employer was involved in producing DAM systems for photographers and photo libraries. As a target market for a software developer, they are a nightmare proposition, having simultaneously complicated requirements (especially licensing models for rights managed images) but very little money to help subsidise the development cost, let alone afford an opportunity to make a profit. My colleagues and I quickly learned that it was easier selling DAM products to corporations who had less complex requirements and would purchase an aggregated system for a bigger fee. It seems clear now that many others had the same idea.

Fragmented DAM Markets
If the business model is based on low volumes and higher fees, the buyers have more leverage over the direction of the product design. This encourages fragmented markets because the end users will look at the numerous options available and pick the ones that are closest to their own – with each different case being slightly closer to or further away from the core product. Unlike Photoshop and bitmap editing applications where there are far more integral features that users expect to see (like different brushes, erasers, colour pickers etc), those core metaphors are less engrained in DAM. You have some common themes such as grids of thumbnails and a search box somewhere, but they tend to break off into different directions very quickly.

Although we have had plenty of disagreement about it here at DAM News, I don’t think it is any surprise that acquisitive vendors like North Plains are choosing to maintain multiple separate products as they know that while de-duplicating costs might be appealing, they will lose customers from the companies they have just spent lots of shareholder funds buying up if they try to merge the product lines together too aggressively.

DAM’s Lack Of Single Purpose
Photoshop has a single purpose: to edit bitmap graphics. It offers a whole universe of sophisticated features around that core function, but the scope is far tighter than DAM. Although there is search (which is probably the biggest single reason people want DAM systems) different groups of end users require various other capabilities once they have found candidate assets. Out of necessity, DAM is evolving into a media supply chain solution where different participants have their own set of priorities and needs at various stages of an asset’s lifecycle.

Insular Mono-Vendor Platforms
One of the features of Photoshop is its highly developed market for plug-ins and tools that enable end users to do more with the core product. At present, the tail seems to wag the dog with this in DAM. The ancillary vendors are the ones who are having to make the effort to get their product working with numerous different systems. The vendor answer to expanding end user requirements is to build ever more bloated and bigger applications, spreading themselves and their development resources across an even wider field.

More Chiefs Than Indians
One of the consequences of going after enterprise implementations in DAM is the volume of management personnel involved when the time comes to try and get an initiative delivered. I have doubts about how many people who talk about DAM actually use (or will use) these products as part of the regular jobs. Usually, when I am involved in implementation discussions, there are one or two people who will be at the sharp end and then a whole tier of IT, marketing, procurement and other stakeholders who have an opinion about DAM, but won’t actually be using the DAM system themselves very often.

The information on Photoshop, by contrast, is nearly exclusively about techniques and tutorials aimed at those who either are (or about to) get very hands on with the product. The disproportionate ratio of Chiefs to Indians means that there is not much material for the end users who should really be driving the DAM market to get interested in it.

Where Next For DAM?
As I have discussed earlier, I cannot see any a single vendor emerging to create a DAM solution that has the capabilities to do for DAM what Photoshop did for bitmap editing, the subject is just too diverse. Despite my previous point, it is undeniable that Digital Asset Management is on its way to becoming a core strategic element of digital media supply chains and businesses need to carefully consider it in that context.

The subject of DAM is too wide-ranging to be handled with one product alone, instead, the industry has to come to terms with the need to collaborate with itself and develop solutions that allow products to work together. This will mean vendors taking some difficult decisions and realising they lack the resources to build everything in-house and will need to specialise in certain key areas.

While you might not see a single system with the same level of brand awareness as Photoshop in the DAM market, I do think that specialist components which run within DAM solutions might acquire one day acquire the same level of recognition.


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One comment

  • Thank you for those very kind words about the article, Ralph! (Really, very generous of you.) And I like your point that DAM is being asked to be so many things. Whereas Photoshop can *do* so many things, it does them all to a single thing–the image. Also, Photoshop isn’t asked to integrate itself with too many other workflow stages. In fact, where workflow is concerned, it seems to virtually always be the other apps that must plan within Photoshop’s playing field. These are very valid points you make and it’s why I like reading DAM News. :)

    David Diamond

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