LightRoom / Aperture

I had an interview with Kevin Conner, Director of Product Management at Adobe. Do to timing windows, I had 15 minutes. Being the tactful guy that I am, I ask, “So everyone in the world is going to ask this, but I want your canned answer. Why did you make LightRoom directly against Aperture, and how do you think it is better than Apple’s Aperture?”

The guy looked like I had just passed gas in an elevator, loudly. I’m thinking “What, I don’t have a lot of time, and this is of course the most significant question on buyers minds”.

The first part was a little easier for him to answer. LightRoom has been an inside project for a couple years, it is a ground up creation using Cocoa not some massive code theft from Photoshop and their raw tools and you don’t just bash something like that out in a few months. Of course that makes sense; Apple came out with iPhoto and Adobe figured, we should probably make a “pro” version – as did Apple. But, as a software development background, I thought was still a good answer – this wasn’t just their answer to Aperture, it was a coincidence that Apple and Adobe were thinking along the same lines, “How do we appeal to those that want a digital darkroom, and not the do-all image manipulators that Photoshop appeals to”. Which all makes perfect sense, and more so when you work with the application.

Adobe explained that their point of view was “Let’s work at things from a professional photographers point of view. How do you optimize the images you have, and optimize for the workflow they have?” This meant changing everything. They maximized screen real estate by taking over the screen. They eliminated background clutter by blacking everything else out. They optimize for the modes (modules), and have much more powerful module focused workflow, instead of just filters. And they are going to open up module development in a future version (not 1.0), that uses a Koa scripting language (used by some games). But the idea being that it is fast, powerful and focused, and the interface focuses on a work area and dominating the entire screen, instead of just having the screen filled with palettes and you could only easily add a filter on whatever the user had open. It is a far better metaphor for what it does.

The way I like to look at it is that Photoshop started as an image optimization tool – but more people used it as an image manipulation tool, and so it evolved into the latter. LightRoom is a really a return to the former, and a workflow optimization tool for those orphaned folks. While I don’t think they were tickled at my view of abandonment and returning to the roots, they did admit the view had some validity.

I pointed out that I’d heard through the grapevine that Adobe wasn’t going to release the product, and it seems far less baked, is single platform (rare for Adobe, rarer as Mac only, and rarer still releasing a public beta), and that the product was in internal political struggles before Aperture was released, then it was fast-tracked. Again the sort of pickled expression that made me question whether I needed to get a tic-tac, or learn some manners. His smooth response was that was not on the team he’d been on. But then went on to admit that Adobe does prefer cross platform, and that they don’t do the things they did, and all but admitted that they were feeling the pressure of not wanting to get shut out of the market.

So, back to my “How does it compare to Aperture question”. Again, the look of “I wish you wouldn’t keep asking me that”. In the end he danced a little. Obviously, they don’t want to start bad mouthing Apple, and it is awkward position for them. But I sort of feel like they should have thought this out better. He explained the advantages of lower hardware requirements and better performance (which was astounding for the size files they were using), he explained about “Open Standards” with the soft implication that Apple was more closed and single platform, he talked about being able to import into a database AND being able to work with images in-place (in your directory structure) with the soft implication that Apple’s interface is their way (Database centric) or you can go suck lemons. Lastly, he mentioned that they support more camera formats and file formats and so on. All good and valid points, and call out some of the strengths of their product and history. I thought that was fair.

Our meeting was cut short, by the next interviewer, and the guy looked a little thankful that I was going to leave him to more his planned script and message. I didn’t mean to act like I was going to write a one-sided slam piece, but my bluntness could have come across that way.

But Adobe and their message on this product is strange and far from polished, I went to their front page for more information on LightRoom, and of course they have nothing on the product, nor on MacExpo. I went hunting; more nothing. Guys, I realize it is a beta – but come on, websites are supposed to be about marketing and giving people information, not pretending the biggest show in Macdom doesn’t exist, or that Macdom doesn’t exist by ignoring your new product because it is being released there first.

Of course the first thing I did after leaving the Adobe meeting is hustle to the Apple booth, and start asking them similar questions from the Aperture to LightRoom perspective. Apple people handle that worse. They pretend they’ve never seen the product, which while that might be true is just moronic from a business perspective – “I’ve never looked at the competition”. Are you serious? The booth-babes / demo-monkeys are given scripts, and if it is on script, you’re fine. If it is off-script, they get VERY nervous. Everything I was hitting them with, was off-script. I should have hunted down the product manager or something and got better answers. But product communication is not the New Apple’s strong suit, so it might not have gone much better. Either way, I was getting the basics.

Neither Apple nor Adobe seems quite comfortable with this much direct competition. The relationship isn’t adversarial, and they both need / like each other – so they ignore business and the elephant in the room. Personally, I felt a little like knocking their heads together and saying “it is just a product”. Of course both Apple and Adobe want a product in this segment, for different reasons. And you guys can compete and mention what makes you think your interface or direction is better without calling the other company ugly or stupid, and it become warfare. I like competition, competition is good.

I also like the concept of both products. Teaching photography people Photoshop is like teaching a graphic artist how to sculpt; they are different disciplines with different objectives. Both LightRoom and Aperture appeal to a new market, and appeal well. Aperture is more mature, obviously, but LightRoom shows a lot of promise. If you’re a professional, than you’ll probably want to buy both, use both, and then figure out which makes you more productive. If you are pro-sumer type, then I’m pretty sure either product will meet your needs. I do have more confidence in Adobe’s ability to optimize workflow than Apple’s – many Apple’s products have cool and sexy features that no one else has, then miss basic things that I need (overly simple). While Adobe’s tend to be featuritis, and overly complex, but still have a way to do everything I’d want to do, pretty quickly. But this isn’t really a deep product review, maybe later; this is more a direction/motivation review. And I hope I gave you some information you weren’t getting elsewhere.

You can download the beta version of Adobe LightRoom here.


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