Microsoft buys iView Multimedia
Yes, it's true, Microsoft has bought iView Multimedia, the asset management company that originally developed products only for the Macintosh platform. This development signals a milestone in the maturation of digital media, and offers a tantalizing glimpse into the future of digital media.
The analysis below is not based on any inside information from Microsoft, but, rather, on my knowledge of the capabilities of iView MediaPro, and my estimate of where the industry is headed. If you would like to reproduce any of this information elsewhere, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Increasingly, we are in a world where the media and information that people create and acquire all reside on a hard drive in a computer. As I tour through Europe this summer, it seems as though everyone I see has a digital camera. The explosion of digital media, like digital photographs, presents several challenges to the user. The images must be sorted and organized so that one can find the pictures when desired. A hard drive full of undifferentiated image files becomes a real chore to look through unless you have some kind of program to ease the process. Browsing software, like Google Picassa or iView MediaPro can help with this process by letting the user employ metadata to sort and organize his files.
Informational Metadata is information that describes characteristics of Media files. This can be information about the file itself (like size or location), information created by the source device (like a digital camera), or information the user creates regarding the content of the media file (such as keywords), how much the user likes the file (Ratings, for example), or what kind of uses the file has been put to. iView provides an exceptionally complete and transparently capability to view, create, and manipulate this metadata. This enables the software to create an environment to know everything about a particular media file.
An even greater challenge than sorting, however, is the management of those media files. Digital Media is comparatively fragile, and can be wiped out in an instant with user error or media failure, such as a hard-drive crash. Because MediaPro is a cataloging application, it keeps a separate record - really a database with a user-friendly front-end - of every file it knows about. This catalog document becomes very useful when one faces the kind of challenges that will inevitably face most digital photographers.
iView and Digital Photography
The principal market for iView MediaPro has been digital photographers, generally professionals and advanced amateurs. MediaPro offers the user the ability to organize their photographs, sort them according to many different needs and criteria, and to perform the kind of work to them that photographers find useful. MediaPro offers the ability, for instance, to easily create galleries of photographs for the Web, and to automatically upload them. A user can also create slideshows, movies, proof prints, contact sheets, and email documents from within this single environment - one that offers transparency and automation in a single package.
iView MediaPro is, in fact, a very capable manager of all digital media. Notice that I did not limit this to photographs, which has been iView's principal market. This is because MediaPro works with all digital media very well, from photos and movies, to audio files, to fonts, layout documents, PDF and Word files, and more. iView offers an unparalleled ability to view, sort, and manage these documents in both the near and long term. MediaPro employs system-level and application-specific resources on both the Macintosh and Windows platform to control much of what you will ever want to do to your digital resources.
In addition to being able to do directory/finder-type work on documents, MediaPro also offers the ability to send documents off to applications to perform the kind of work to the files that users will need to do. Photographs can be selected to send to Photoshop, movie files can be sequenced and sent to an editing application, and audio files can be grouped into playlists like iTunes.
iView's underlying engine is easily scriptable. This offers the opportunity for thousands of individual programmers to easily create automation tools that leverage the functionality already in the program. there are a number of prolific scripters working in the iView environment who have added significant functionality to the application.
The world of digital photography is currently undergoing a revolution. We are moving from an imaging paradigm of "rendered pixels" - where adjustments to images are stored by actually changing the color value of the pixel - to a world where images are adjusted by saved instructions - "Metadata Imaging". Metadata edits can be seen most clearly in applications that work of RAW image files. These applications, like Adobe Camera Raw, C1Pro, and Nikon Capture never alter the underlying image data, rather they simply change the way the image is interpreted and displayed. There are several advantages to this approach, including smaller file size, ease of management, reversibility, and batch-applying to similar images.
Smaller File Size
Traditional Pixel Rendering generally creates a much larger file than Metadata Imaging. Because it stores the adjustments you make to an image file as a new value for each pixel in the photograph, it must store quite a bit of data for each change. Metadata Imaging, however, just stores a bit of text instructing the application on how to open, adjust, and render the file. There is an additional advantage, if one is working with RAW images. Since digital camera capture images as "mosaiced" files, they are naturally compressed to one-third the size of rendered files. This combination enables the user to store image files in a more economical format without losing the flexibility to make changes later.
Unified File Management
Metadata Imaging - particularly when combined with the DNG file format - can greatly streamline the file management process. The DNG specification enables the user to zip lots of useful data into one single file. It can contain the original image data, instructions on how to render the file with Metadata Edits, Informational Metadata about the subject matter of the file, and a rendered version of the file - all in a very small package.
The reversibility of Metadata Imaging is another great benefit for the user. This enables the user undo mistakes he might have made, or decisions he simply wants to make differently at a later date (adjusting first into Black and White, and later deciding to print the image in Color, for instance). It also enables the user to make a quick pass over a set of images, making quick corrections, while still keeping the full set of adjustment options open for the future. Thus, the user does not have to front-load all the imaging work, but can decide at a later time that some images require more careful adjustments than the original production schedule allowed for. Additionally, this lets the user take advantage of improvements in imaging technology, as new versions of imaging software are developed.
Finally, Metadata Imaging also helps to address another challenge particular to digital photography, the need to make similar adjustments to many images. Since Metadata Imaging corrections can be easily pasted from one image to another, correction settings from one image can be leveraged to an entire group of images quickly.
Metadata Imaging is still in its infancy, and can be expected to experience phenomenal growth over the next few years. It is an area of great competition at the moment, in a way that is entirely absent from Pixel Rendering. We've already seen a number of new functionalities in this area, from the spot healing in Aperture to the split-toning in Lightroom, to the tone mapping of Lightzone and the local adjustments in Nikon CaptureNX. One characteristic all these applications share is the need to attach and manage Metadata Image settings to the file, and to manage this information over time, and between applications.
Metadata Imaging Ecosystem
MediaPro is currently in the best position to provide the ecosystem for the management of all this Metadata Imaging data. Because it works well with many applications, and because it has the ability to harvest and transparently manage all metadata, it will not be a great leap to extend this capability to Metadata Imaging. MediaPro has the inside track to become the one application that can seamlessly interface between multiple Imaging applications from different vendors.
MediaPro was the first application to be able to read the embedded preview in a DNG file, and to be able to write metadata back to the file. As a nimble early adopter of the format, iView was able to leverage the work Adobe software does to the file for rapid batch processing (much faster than Adobe software can), and tight integration with Photoshop and Bridge. MediaPro will likely be the first application to offer full functionality for DNG files made with multiple different applications both inside and outside the Adobe product line.
As digital media becomes ever more a part of everyone's lives, the need for applications to help manage it also becomes greater. Not only are people making digital photographs, but they are making digital movies. And many people are starting to purchase media directly in digital form. Music is downloaded from sites like iTunes, and television programs and movies can be captured with devices like Tivo and other Digital Video Recorders. For many users, the cost of purchased media is already outstripping the cost of the computer it is stored on. We can expect this to be the norm in the very near future.
Protecting Assets from Loss
While iTunes offers the ability to purchase and play media files, it is a pretty blunt instrument for the management of the media. For instance, it offers no ability to save a separate record of your media collection to use in the event of drive failure. It provides no way of knowing what media files were part of your collection, so that you can be sure that everything has been recovered successfully. This capability will become increasingly important as the value of stored media grows.
Microsoft provides needed engineering resources
iView Multimedia, the company, has been able to create an extremely robust application on a comparatively small budget. The creator of the software, Yannis Calotychos has been able to create an extremely deep application. (As a matter of fact, there are so many undocumented features in iView, that I think no one outside of iView even knows its full feature set). I know from personal experience, however, that the work Yan has done is only a portion of what he would like to do. As a start-up company, iView has had to allocate resources judiciously. What they have needed most is access to greater engineering resources.
The acquisition by Microsoft will provide the iView team with the engineering resources that it has long needed. I expect to see a whole host of functionality added in the coming years, although I cannot say exactly which ones - and in which order - will appear. I'm not privy to the strategic plans Microsoft has for the product, but I can see the landscape, and I know how MediaPro can fit into it. I'd be very surprised if Microsoft does not see many of these same opportunities, and plan on exploiting them.
Additional iView Products
iView is more than the the flagship application. They have also created two additional applications, iView Media and iView Catalog Reader. iView Media is a stripped-down version of MediaPro, suitable in price for a wider range of hobbiest photographers. The Catalog Reader is a free application that can enable the distribution of iView catalogs to people who do not own the paid software. The new Notepad feature of iView enables two-way communication between users of MediaPro and the Catalog Reader.
In fact, what Microsoft has purchased, more then the applications themselves, is an extremely talented engineering team, lead by Yan Calotychos. I'm sure many divisions within Microsoft will be anxious to get the attention of this team. It could integrate with Rich Media - the group that is creating the Expression suite of creative applications. MediaPro could also be of great value to any efforts by Microsoft to take a bite out of Apple's iTunes business, or the other iLife applications.
Whatever the progression, I personally expect to see Microsoft to eventually use MediaPro to provide an environment for the creation and acquisition of Media files of all sorts.
A New Development Environment
Perhaps the biggest question for the current MediaPro user is whether Microsoft can provide an environment for the application to grow to its full potential. The current team is extremely nimble, able to change plans quickly and able to add features in an instant. Integration with Microsoft will surely alter this turnaround time. Whether the engineering team can still continue its market-leading work in such a different work environment remains to be seen.
iView and Apple
Another open question is the future of development on the Macintosh platform. Microsoft is clearly making a play here to attract Photographers and other Creative Professionals to the Windows platform. As such, the future of Mac support is at least somewhat in question. I would suggest, however, that it would be a smart move fro Microsoft to continue Apple support for some period of time.
Creative Pros who work on the Mac are quite reluctant to give up the platform. As Microsoft works to encourage MediaPro to be the primary ecosystem from working with Media files, it would be very smart to include Apple users in those plans, at least for the forseeable future. If Microsoft shares my vision of MediaPro as the top-level environment for media management, it would be foolish to cut out Mac users from that environment. Doing so would only encourage other applications to bloom in this area, and would greatly reduce the number of creative shops - its current core market - that could make use of the software.
Of course, anything could happen.
The Prenup: Getting Data out of iView
There's another safeguard for the Mac user, however. MediaPro has always been a market leader in the ability to export work out of the application. Currently, there are three different ways that a user can extract all the Metadata they have created in MediaPro. For many kinds of media files, Metadata can be exported back into the files themselves. This makes the information easily portable to other Digital Asset Management applications. Additionally, all the metadata created by MediaPro can be exported as an XML file, and as a Tabbed text file.
This capability makes iView a very safe bet for future compatibility. Photographers and other users can feel confident that work created in the current version of iView will be easily exported to other applications should they decide they want to do so.
In all, I think that the acquisition of iView by Microsoft was very good for both companies. Microsoft gets a mature and robust application for media management, and iView gets virtually unlimited engineering resources. I think this is also quite likely to be extremely good for creators and consumers of media, as they are likely to get an application capable of functionality that they don't even dream of yet.
In many ways, this purchase signals a sea change in our relationship with the media that we create and consume. In the future, we will think of it less as a collection of discrete files, and more like "our life". The entry of the largest corporation in the world into the media management market will clearly change the landscape. And iView is a perfect application for Microsoft to use as the core of its media management strategy. It's robust, scriptable, cross-platform, works with many applications, and is backed by the most talented engineering team in the Asset Management space.
Peter Krogh is a photographer, author, lecturer, and consultant. His book, The DAM Book, Digital Asset Management for Photographers (O'Reilly 2005) is the most comprehensive volume on the subject. Peter is on the board of Directors of ASMP, the American society of Media Photographers, and is a founding member of UPDIG Consortium, (Universal Photographic Digital Imaging Guidelines.) He is an alpha tester for Adobe and iView Multimedia, specializing in organizing digital photographs. He lives outside Washington DC with his family.