Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lessons in Software: Aperture 3 and iPhoto 11

The state of OS X photo management is mixed.

It’s not so bad for customers who aren’t invested in iPhoto. Much of Adobe’s OS X software is lousy, but Adobe Lightroom is a singular exception. It still, for example, uses Apple’s installer instead of Adobe’s malware installer. It’s a professional level product with a learning curve, and it shares Adobe’s uncertain future, but it’s the best choice for a new user.

Apple’s professional product, Aperture, used to compete with Lightroom, but it lost that battle. Aperture has been unreliable, slow, and buggy – which professionals and prosumers can’t tolerate. Aperture’s only future is to be an upgrade path for iPhoto. That’s where things start to get grim. Apple claims there’s a smooth migration path from iPhoto to Aperture, but Apple lies (yes, they do). Aperture has nowhere to store much of iPhoto’s event and album annotations

So what about iPhoto? Ahh, that’s where the really bad news starts. The latest release, iPhoto 11, has a “bug” – it can delete images. Tens of thousands of images. This would be bad even if everyone had backups – but backup is an unsolved technical and social problem. It’s likely that iPhoto 11 also deletes images in a less obvious fashion, which, if you think about it, is worse than deleting all images all at once.

Image deletion is a bit of a nasty bug, but it doesn’t affect me personally. I know Apple. I never use their software until the beta testers early adopters are done. I am, however, impacted by Apple’s product direction. They are making iPhoto more of a true consumer product, removing functionality and foreclosing features I want (like detached library management).

iPhoto power users are on a sinking ship, and the Aperture life raft comes with mandatory limb removal. We’re left in the sad situation of hoping Adobe will bail us out with a Lightroom migration path, but I suspect they no longer have the resources to build one.

Yech. This sort of thing happens much too often these days. I’m in a similar situation with my Google hosted blogs. So, what can I (we?) learn from this? Here are my take home lessons:

  1. It’s very hard to live between markets. This is true across many domains, from power tools to software. There’s a stable market for costly professional products, and a market for lowest denominator consumers. The in-between “prosumer” market is unstable.
  2. The “consumer” market isn’t a good place to be. Consumers have short memories – they upgrade to Apple’s new products despite a long history of major data destroying bugs. Consumers, by and large, don’t care enough about their data.
  3. Apple doesn’t have a culture of quality because their customers don’t demand quality. They do have a culture of design. If you’re like me, and you love both design and quality, you’re in trouble. There’s no easy answer, but don’t forget the tradeoff.
  4. There’s no fundamental reason Aperture couldn’t be changed to support more of iPhoto’s metadata…

The last one, to me, is the most interesting question.

Why doesn’t Aperture support more iPhoto metadata? It’s in Apple’s business interest to migrate iPhoto users to Aperture, why not make that work properly?

I don’t know, but I think this is one aspect of a general problem with software. There are a million good paths to take in software development, but you can really only take one. If you take ‘em all, you get a symphony composed by committee. Software development requires a tyrant, but it takes a long time to do good software. It takes about 5-10 years.

Ten years is a career. It’s too long a tenure for modern business structures; it doesn’t match career or business models. Tyrants can’t last in large businesses – unless the tyrant owns the show (Jobs). It costs too much to devote very talented tyrants to maintaining and building something like Aperture when iOS development returns far more value.

I’m hopeful we’ll eventually figure out a solution for problem 4. I’m hopeful that the OS X App Store and its FairPlay DRM will make small company software more viable. If that happens Apple could sell Aperture to a company that could make a good profit migrating iPhoto customers – and Apple would still earn 1/3 of the revenue from App Store sales. That could be a win-win for everyone.

In the meantime, OS X iPhoto users need to stay with iPhoto 9 and wait for a solution.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I found your site while surfing the internet.
I don't see where Aperture "lost" the battle to ligthroom...
They have both pros and cons in every domain. Yes Aperture is slower. But No it's not more buggy than Lightroom. I remember a version of lightroom (2.1?) which deleted raw files...
Lightroom and Aperture have a different approach in term of adjusting an image. Aperture being closer to Bibble or Lightzone, where (almost) any adjustment can be brushed either in the image or out. And every adjustment can be duplicated (you can have multiple curves in Aperture which you can definitely cannot have in Lightroom).
I understand you prefer Lightroom, good for you. There is no bad software as long as one fits for you.
And I do think there is enough room in the Photograpy software for Aperture and Lightroom and other piece of software (like Capture, Bibble...).
Sorry: English is not my first language...

Anonymous said...

To Julien
Your English writing is better than most native English speakers I know. Be proud of it!

John Gordon said...

My comment on Aperture vs. Lightroom came from the coverage and interest on pro photo sites. Aperture had strong interest for a year or two, but that's really evaporated on those sites.