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Traveling Asset Management's Bumpy Road

Developments in Tiger and Longhorn and other tools for managing assets.

The current shift in approaches to the development of digitalasset management (DAM) software is more a change of form than function. The basics have not changed much: DAM is still a matter of being able to find"?and then deliver"?the files you want when you want them.

But in the past, at least for digital service providers, that process had been tied almost exclusively to finding images. Today, the approach to DAM is much more sophisticated and focused on finding solutions that work across the entire enterprise.

It's all in the metadata
It's important you know a bit about metadata before we proceed. Metadata is data about data. It is data that's embedded in the files to transport information about that file wherever it might be needed. In using your digital camera, for instance, you may be surprised at how much information accompanies the image you shoot. The shutter camera name, date, shutter speed, aperture, and other settings are all to be found within the file data. Not only is there the data that represents the asset itself, but there is also data about the asset.

The data about the image is all "metadata," which is really only text. Although it adds very little weight to the file size, it can add great value when you need to find an asset. Programs such as Adobe Photoshop can read metadata, but you can also add to it. Metadata can take the form of keywords, the creator's name, the project, or other information about the file. Metadata for an image of a hot red pepper, for example, might contain the words "fire," "hot," "red," "pepper," "spicy," "Mexican," "food," and so on. Determining what words need to be entered into metadata fields is half the battle when it comes to retrieving the right asset.

To provide software with the intelligence it needs to manage your assets, metadata can be added either automatically (the way your digital camera does it) or manually. For these new DAM systems to truly work, however, entering this data needs to be a painless process.

Overcoming barriers
The chief impediment to effective asset management is not a fault with the systems themselves, although some certainly are more "robust" than others. Rather, the problem is with a lack of standards for how metadata is entered and utilized. If the developers can figure out ways to automate the data entry, end users would benefit immensely.

In addition, there's the issue of how to get that data efficiently entered. Plus, how will the standards now being developed be applied to the hundreds of millions of digital assets being created daily? The data will have to be forced to conform to the standards. The software will have to be able to recognize that the data it wants to use is not entered in the manner the standard says it should be"?and then "fix" it.

How will this data be entered and administered? This is the area of focus for today's DAM developers. The files entering printer workflows may initially be generated at a variety of dataentry points, and getting all of these databases to effectively communicate is still something that is a ways off. DAM-related companies are painfully aware of the problem and are working to keep an open-standards approach to their development.

For shops, by the way, that's the upside to all this: You won't find anyone developing DAM products that aren't based on open standards. It's really the only way to go.

Taking an OS approach
Since open standards are accepted by all of the major players, the other issue to be confronted is the automation of the data-entry process"?and making the data entered meaningful. After all, you can't pull data out of a file unless it's been "entered" in the first place.

A couple of actions are taking place that will ultimately make this process easier. Apple's Spotlight in OS X Tiger and the next generation of Microsoft OS are making data-mining and search capabilities part of the operating system. Tiger, for instance, monitors data as it's entered, so all changes to data on the hard drive are monitored for fast search and retrieval. Those who have used Apple's Spotlight are impressed with the speed at which the OS can find even keywords inside of documents. Apple has gone about developing Spotlight in a proprietary fashion, partly because standards are still not set, but Spotlight does indeed pull the metadata from digital photos, etc.

For developers of DAM tools, this provides an interesting challenge: how to extract the data Spotlight is already pulling from files and make it useful to their systems. Xinet, for example, just released a new version of its WebNative asset-management system, which runs on OS X (as well as Windows). But although Xinet is an Apple developer and has been privy to Tiger since before its release, the company has had to develop its new product for Panther while already working on a Tiger update.

For Microsoft DAM developers, the problem may be a bit more complicated right now. Microsoft has said it will offer something similar to Spotlight in the new version of its software (currently code-named Longhorn), and is also said to be taking a proprietary approach. Add to that the fact that most industry observers believe the new release is more than a year away and you can see why developers' hands are tied. They need to develop products for today's existing operating systems while trying to anticipate the tools and capabilities future operating systems will put in their hands. Clearly, if you can put the engine for digital-asset management directly into the operating system, you can build much faster products.

More new tools
Beyond the Tiger and Longhorn developments, there are other new tools on the market that can make for easier asset management:

  • For newbies in the DAM field, there is the recently introduced low-cost, Mac-based solution: SeeFile. A 10-user bundle costs $1000, which includes a Mac mini (40-GB version). The product contains many of the Web-management tools and infrastructure that are generally found in much more costly systems. Its first users have largely been found in the professional photography market, the company reports.
  • As indicated earlier, Xinet has released a new version of its WebNative DAM product called Portal. This is a $15,000 upgrade (no computer included) built atop a very solid foundation of Xinet's WebNative product ($12,500), which has enjoyed years of development. This is a DAM system for the very large provider, requiring plenty of firepower and all the bells and whistles; not for the faint of budget.
  • Adobe has made dealing with metadata a major part of its Creative Suite product and the basis for its Version Cue tools. The product is essentially designed to keep different versions of files organized and integrated (for example, you can make a change in one file and update all the associated files if you want to). It accomplishes this with metadata, which opens up a lot of collaboration and file-search possibilities.
  • Canto and Extensis have released new versions of their entrylevel products. Extensis Portfolio 7 sells for $200, while the personal version of Canto Cumulus is $69. Obviously these are not designed for full-production environments, but can be very handy for tracking files on a single computer. Both also make workgroup versions of the products available for less than $10,000. In addition, both companies have released patches or updates to make their latest releases compatible with Apple's Tiger OS; each company's products also are available on Windows platforms.
  • The total cost
    Dozens of other DAM products are on the market, ranging from entry-level products to systems costing several hundred thousand dollars (see "Sourcelist: Managing Your Assets," February 2005, p. 54). And while basic systems may be just fine for most operations (though probably not the single-user versions), keep in mind that the cost of software is only a portion of a shop's total cost. Whatever you pay for DAM software, you will probably expend more capital setting it up and putting it into action than for the software itself.

    It's no small task to set up client permissions, establish and input keywords, enter the assets, and thoroughly test the system. The key to a good system is having it set up correctly in the first place"?and that requires plenty of planning and research. While automation sounds good, you can only automate data after it is input, and that can be a very painstaking process.

    Consider the source of the data you wish to manage and how it's formatted. And consider what you might want to do with the data down the road. Many shops have set up systems only to find that they did not allow sufficient variables or open fields for future growth.

    Even with the most careful planning, there will also be costs associated with updating and maintaining the software and hardware. As new operating systems come online, you will really have no choice but to upgrade. Many DAM developers offer a fixed yearly price for upgrading your software.

    Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.

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