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Images Served to Order

A new kind of asset manager delivers the right image at the right time

Remember when you first heard of digital asset management programs? How they promised to put an end to wasted hours searching for that image you needed, the one you knew had to be in a folder or on a disk around here somewhere? By the time those programs arrived on the scene, publishers and printing operations were starting to drown in digital images. GISTICS Research reported in 1999 that creative professionals were devoting 10% of their time to file management, with simply searching for files accounting for a third of that. Canto Software, makers of the Cumulus suite of asset managers, reported that the average creative looked for a file 83 times a week--and failed to find it 35% of the time.

The arrival of digital asset management (DAM) definitely helped, but it certainly didn't make the problem go away. The fact that the sheer volume of digital images has kept increasing has practically guaranteed that managing them would continue to be a problem. The growth in publishing and marketing on the Web is largely responsible for today's flood of digital assets: according to Doug Mack, CEO of Scene7, the use of images on the Web has grown 500% during the past five years.

These days, publishers and other cross-media communicators not only have one version of an image for the brochure and another one for the print ad, they have a third for the website. Actually, in all likelihood they have more than one for the website--they've got the thumbnail, another copy at full size, and maybe one zoomed in on a detail. A DAM system can help keep track of all those versions--but what if you didn't have to create and store them all in the first place?

"It's very expensive to repurpose an image for every output," says Tim Bigoness of Equilibrium Technologies, makers of the widely used image conversion software Debabelizer. "There's a cost associated any time you touch an image and repurpose." "

Not having to repurpose an image is the idea behind an up-and-coming class of products called image servers. Doug Mack's company makes the Infinite Imaging Server and describes the product's value proposition this way: "A company can have a single master image, and any user can transform that image for a business purpose." The version of an image required for a specific purpose is created when it's needed, according to the rules and stipulations controlling the server. And it's created automatically by the server software, rather than by a user copying the master image to a local machine and processing it there. The new version can be put back onto the server or fed into a DAM system if that makes sense; or it can be generated anew each time it's needed.

Bigoness, whose company sells the MediaRich image server, points out that "The original always remains intact, but you don't have to manage all the derivative assets." The image server can deliver an EPS for print purposes, a JPEG for the Web, and even a tiny JPEG for delivery to PDAs on an as-needed basis. Working this way "reduces the time and cost it takes to move an image around a business," Bigoness continues. "DAM and content-management systems have very good workflows and repositories. We only focus on the repurposing aspect." "

Hands off

The advantages of image servers extend beyond simply saving server space. Obviously, any operation can choose a single high-resolution master copy of an image on the server and produce new versions with image processing software whenever they're needed. It's exactly that real-time processing that's expensive, though; image servers automate the process.

The Adobe Graphics Server is another entry in the field, and Allister Lundberg, Adobe product manager for server products, brags that "We've automated many of the common tasks done in Photoshop. People like that idea." The latest version of the Graphics Server, version 2, handles Photoshop 7 files and is based on the same software libraries and imaging engine as Photoshop and ImageReady. That means it processes images the same way Photoshop does--only automatically--and gives results of the same quality. According to Lundberg, some customers use the AGS to produce an image on the fly, while others use it to batch process a bunch of images in advance of using them. Doing the processing of an image in real time sounds like a great idea, he says, but it may not make sense from a performance standpoint.

You tell an image server what to do, generally, by writing some kind of a script. The script defines and restricts the processing of the image and tailors the output to the publishing requirements. "It's ultimately the best way to deploy, because each customer has a unique way of working," says Bigoness. For MediaRich, the script can be written in the company's own MediaScript or in XML, JavaScript, or SOAP. The Adobe Graphics Server can likewise be controlled with commands written in XML, Java, Perl, and others. It can also use a Photoshop or ImageReady file as a template.

The automation saves staff time, but it also enables companies to add consistency to the image production process by reducing the number of choices and variables workers are faced with. The Adobe Graphics Server isn't sold as an end product, but rather as an engine that customers add their own interfaces to, and "when I've seen the user interfaces," Lundberg says, "they've basically simplified and restricted the options for how they want an image." Having the transformations done automatically by the server reduces the chance of error, since someone has limited the choices to go wrong.

The restrictions can benefit a production workflow in other ways, too. Lundberg cites the instance of a newspaper that has rules for the size, resolution, and other characteristics of an image submitted by a photographer. Without an image server, if a photo was submitted the wrong way, people at the paper would have to spend time fixing it. But with the Graphics Server, the photographer can choose the conversion options before the submission, and the paper can be guaranteed of getting the image the way they want it. "We didn't anticipate the whole preflighting capability," says Lundberg.

Web to print

The real impetus behind the development of image servers has come from the online world. According to a TrueSpectra (maker of the TrueSpectra Image Server) presentation from last September, images comprise 50% of Web traffic today.

Many of those are just static images, of course. But think of the newspaper and magazine sites that have thumbnails of news photos that you can click on to get an enlarged version. Think of the number of online retail catalog sites that offer the same thing--and in different colors, too! There's the red sweater--and then the same sweater in pink, blue, teal, aqua, coral. Those are all separate images. The attraction of not having to store all those images on the server but rather to create and deliver them to order makes online retail an obvious customer for image servers"?what Bigoness describes as "the low-hanging fruit." It's a good category, he says, for early adoption of image server technology, and he says MediaRich has several customers in that area.

But, Bigoness continues, Equilibrium realized that Web imagery was too narrow a focus for MediaRich. "Once you've done one zoom and pan, you've done them all," he says. With the kind of image transformation technology in Debabelizer, they realized it was possible to do more than just the relatively few tasks needed for online catalogs. With the right features, image servers could work in the print world as well, and they're beginning to migrate in that direction. Scene7, Equilibrium, and Adobe are among the first image server vendors to offer print-oriented features; there are several other Web-oriented image servers out there, and you can bet some of them will follow.

The big move has begun to happen over the last 18 months, says Mack. "People have started to ask, 'I have this value proposition for the Web, but can I leverage that image across all my media?'" The move is still led by retailers, he says--still being driven by typical image-intensive businesses. The next release of the Infinite Imaging Server (due out in the third quarter of 2003), according to Mack, will focus heavily on print in general--the number-one customer request for the next version is for the ability to carry ICC profiles through the process.

The Infinite Imaging Platform is already being used for some print purposes, such as recent campaigns by Venus Swimwear, a direct marketer of junior swimwear. For some promotions, the company has repurposed photography from previous years, updating the swimwear with this year's patterns and colors. Venus even produced a 48-ft. billboard with images from the Infinite platform and claims to have saved 75% on photography costs by doing it that way.

The 2.0 release of the Adobe Graphics Server, which started shipping last December, was similarly mainly focused on print workflows because of customer demand. To that end, Adobe enhanced the product's image size and resolution capabilities and also focused on profiles: "We can do RGB to CMYK conversion," says Lundberg, "and apply profiles in either direction." The new version of the Graphics Server can also convert an image from one color space to another.

Lundberg even envisions the Graphics Server being used for document production. He posits a scenario in which the Server would be the basis of an automated advertising solution: a user could log onto the server, select an advertising template, and have the images generated to order and assembled into an ad.

Print from the beginning

All this talk about automatic server-based image generation may sound familiar to those who've used OPI (Open Prepress Interface) systems. OPI systems, which date back to 1989, work by automatically creating a low-resolution FPO version of an image stored on a server. Designers use the low-resolution image in their layouts, and the high-resolution original gets swapped into place at print time.

"The reason for OPI used to be for improving network throughput," says Tom Hallinan, Strategic Partner Manager for HELIOS Software. "Now it's for providing flexibility in the use of image formats." Because of that evolution, new image servers are also coming from the OPI world.

Helios, for instance, calls the new version of its Ethershare OPI product the "Helios ImageServer." Hallinan says the change was due to the addition of new functionality to the system, so that OPI is now just a small part of what it can do. Helios system has had ICC-based color management for about six years, says Hallinan, and now does server-based conversion of image formats, color space, compression, and resolution.

Xinet has seen the same kind of transition in the use of its FullPress server product. The product always used the company's own image-processing engine to automatically generate an FPO copy of stored images for OPI purposes, says Mark Mousseau, technical sales support engineer. "But back around 1996 or 1997," Mousseau continues, "people began to ask for 'Web-enabled FPOs.'" Xinet added that capability and has since built a suite of products that "allow you to take any graphical asset on your server and order it as something else," in Mousseau's words.

Via the company's WebNative Internet-based front end to the server, a user can select an individual asset and create a new version or select several files and batch-convert them all, regardless of original format. The WebNative Venture product adds digital asset management to the mix by recording all the information about different versions in the FullPress server into appropriate fields in an SQL database.

Cooperation and integration

As Xinet's WebNative/WebNative Venture pair of products shows, there's still a role for asset-management systems in a world of image servers. In some cases, it'd make sense to save some of these automatically generated images back into the system: you get the benefits of automation and the assurance that the image has been processed correctly, even if you don't need the just-in-time delivery. It might make sense for Venus Swimwear, for instance, to keep the images for this year in the system for possible future use.

While Xinet offers its own product, the vendors of other image servers are partnering with existing DAM vendors to offer integrated solutions. Adobe's partners Documentum and Webware have expressed interest in incorporating the Graphics Server into their offerings, and you can already buy a package integrating the Server with the DAM solution from MediaBin (which is being acquired by Interwoven). Similarly, Scene7 has just released the 2.5 version of the Infinite Imaging Platform, which works in conjunction with the IBM Content Manager. Putting the Scene7 product on top of the Content Manager enables a company to publish server-generated images right back into the content management system. And Canto, makers of the Cumulus asset management products, offers Helios Companion, which automatically synchronizes Cumulus catalogs with Helios server volumes as new images are generated.

The idea that having a way to make images automatically will save our assets may seem as likely to succeed as "paperless office" technologies did in freeing us from paper. But even if the results are more and still more digital images, the speed and reliability with which an image server can create them (and use an associated DAM system to keep track of them), should prove real benefits to many of us engaged in digital communications.

Jake Widman is Contributing Editor of The Big Picture. He can be reached at jake.widman@stmediagroup.com.

Adobe Systems -- www.adobe.com
Canto -- www.canto.com
Equilibrium Technology -- www.equilibrium.com
GISTICS Research -- www.gistics.com
Helios -- www.helios.de
Scene7 -- www.scene7.com
True Spectra -- www.truespectra.com
Xinet --www.xinet.com

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