Lightroom and the Innovator’s Dilemma

Adobe announced some big changes to Lightroom today, including a new cloud-native version (Lightroom CC) as well as a re-branding of the familiar desktop version (Lightroom Classic). Additionally, they have discontinued development of a “perpetual” version and all new versions will be licensed on a subscription basis. What gives?

The Innovator’s Dilemma
Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma helps to shed some light on Adobe’s behavior. In the book, Christensen tracks the rise and fall of disruptive innovation, which includes rapid growth of successful applications, and an eventual leveling off of growth as the market becomes saturated. Eventually, changes in the market landscape allow for new competitors to arise, and the company becomes vulnerable to disruptive innovation and the loss of market dominance. If you don’t innovate on an equally aggressive basis, the company faces real danger. In this circumstance, your market dominance may prevent you from creating new software as you focus on maintaining the success of the old product.

The digital photography revolution
Lightroom was, in large part, an earlier response to the innovator’s dilemma. Photoshop was the clear leader in imaging software, but it was developed before the advent of digital cameras. Camera Raw was developed as companion application to Photoshop to deal with raw files, but ultimately the very structure of Photoshop was incompatible with the needs of busy digital photographers. It had a one-at-a-time file handling structure that was insufficient for many workflows.
Lightroom was developed in response to this new market reality. Adobe took the Camera Raw engine from Photoshop and grafted it on to a database, creating one of the most successful applications in the company’s history. Lightroom was developed by a small team working inside Adobe, essentially functioning as competition to the flagship product. If Adobe had put all their effort into shoring up Photoshop, they would be in very serious trouble right now as a preferred tool for digital photographers.

Mobile>digital
We are now at another inflection point, and this one, I believe, is even more transformational. The use of photography as a language, created on and consumed on smartphones has changed the way we communicate. One of the primary needs in this new world is continuous access and connectivity. Dependence on desktop software is incompatible with many of the important uses of photography. Often, we simply can’t wait until we get back to the home or office to send photos. And a great collection of images is frustratingly out of reach if you are away from your computer.
In order to serve the needs of mobile photographic communication, the Lightroom team has spent years working on ways to create an integrated cloud component to Lightroom. Publish Services allow the extension of Lightroom to integrate with a wide variety of other applications, including many cloud offerings. And the introduction of Lightroom Mobile, along with some integration with traditional Lightroom catalogs, offered some seamless interchange.
But the architecture of Lightroom as a desktop application simply cannot be stretched enough to create a great mobile application. The desktop flexibility that has powers such a wide array of workflows can’t be shoehorned in to full cloud compatibility. The freedom to set up your drives, files and folders as you wish makes a nightmare for seamless access. And the flexibility to create massive keyword and collection taxonomies does not work with small mobile screens. After years of experimentation, the only good answer was the creation of a new cloud native architecture. As with the creation of the original Lightroom, this was done by taking the existing Camera Raw imaging engine and bolting it on to a new chassis – this time a cloud native architecture.

Managed file storage
In order to have “my stuff everywhere” the new application has to be cloud native. The primary storage of your images and videos is now in the cloud. This allows Lightroom to have seamless access on multiple devices. And in order to allow Lightroom to push these files around, you need to give up control over the configuration of folders. By giving the control over to Lightroom, the application itself can help to manage the transfer of files between devices, using downsized versions when storage space is not adequate for full size copies. (and, yes, you can have a complete full-sized archive on your own drives, which is something I would suggest).

Computational Tagging
Lightroom has also made a major break with the metadata methods of the past, opting for a computational tagging system. Some of this is familiar – the use of date-time stamps and GPS tags to organize photos. Some is new, like the Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence tagging that can automagically find images according to content. While these tools and techniques are pretty rudimentary now, we can expect them to mature quickly and continually. (Google Photos, for instance, just announced that they can now identify photos of your pets, and, voila, the tags simply appear.)

Not the end of desktop Lightroom
Just as the advent of Lightroom did not kill Photoshop, the introduction of Lightroom CC will not kill Lightroom Classic. It’s a hugely popular program for an important part of their customer base. And creating a cloud-native version of the software, instead of trying to shoehorn the program into a workflow it did not fit, frees up resources to make Lightroom a better desktop application. The Camera Raw development team can continue to make improvements to the engine, and each of the chassis builders – Camera Raw + Bridge, Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC can focus on building workflows for their customer’s needs.
There are a number of important uses of Lightroom that are pretty far off for Lightroom CC. Many power users depend on custom keyword taxonomies and deep collection hierarchies and these may never appear in Lightroom CC. And there are lots of existing integrating of Lightroom through Publish Services that won’t be easy to migrate. There are also a ton of clever and useful Lightroom plugins that may be impossible to add to the cloud version.
For my own workflow, I’ll be sticking to Lightroom Classic as far as the eye can see. But I expect that my wife and kids will be happier with Lightroom CC.

The end of Perpetual Lightroom
There is certain to be some unhappiness with the discontinuation of the perpetual versions of Lightroom. For those who don’t want cloud connectivity or who don’t use smart phones, this change forces them into a subscription service that may be unwanted. I feel your pain.
But the world is changing, and photography is becoming a more important part of it. I’ve spent the last four months working on The DAM Book 3, writing about these tectonic changes, and I’m convinced that mobile imaging (and image consumption) is a driving force. Adobe is in a position to help us take advantage of that change and make the most of it. If they did not accept the evolution of the imaging landscape, they could be in real trouble. As it is, it will still be a challenge to maintain their leadership in such a fast-moving market.
Although Lightroom CC does introduce some black box functionality, Adobe is still a clear leader in “you own your stuff, and you can take it wth you.” I think this attitude, central to Adobe’s products since Geschke and Warnock left Xerox PARC to found the company, remains one of the strongest reasons to use their tools. Mobile and cloud computing has changed the landscape, but this attitude remains intact.
Note – If you want a more granular description of the changes to Lightroom, check out the ever-comprehensive Victoria Bampton’s post here. 

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