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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 ([email protected]), in prepress production
    for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager
    with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.



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