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Before getting into the main discussion points of this article, it is perhaps worth reviewing where we are in the overall DAM product life-cycle. I would argue that not only are we well into the growth stage of DAM, but that the maturity phase is in prospect in the medium term also.

With the clients I deal with in my consulting work, expectations have progressed through three key stages which are characterized by the kind of questions I get asked:

  1. What is DAM? Why do I need a DAM system?
  2. We need a DAM system, which one should we buy?
  3. Our DAM system isn't delivering the productivity benefits we hoped for, how can we fix it?

I find very few wanting to know what DAM is any longer. There are a sizable number who are still on question 2, but increasingly, it's the third item that is being mentioned.

The more active end users are eager to push DAM systems from being just a rudimentary 'image library' that scratches the surface of their digital media management problem (growth phase) and more into becoming an interconnected hub that is at the heart of their digital media operations (maturity phase).

The Disappearance of the DAM Systems for End Users?

The main value proposition for a DAM system is that it represents single source where authorized users can find suitable media that they can use. Amongst existing DAM end users, that has ceased to be a major USP any longer. They not only want it all in one place, but they also do not wish to leave a familiar application environment to use it.

A difficult point for many DAM vendors to come to terms with is that many end users don't appreciate another piece of software they have to procure, configure, train, rollout and support. Their preference is that a small set of core users will take an active role in organizational and management issues regarding digital media. Everyone else will remain in whatever tools they are already familiar with like InDesign, Photoshop, PowerPoint, Word or possibly in SharePoint and/or a WCM such as Drupal.

This reflects typical usage patterns in DAM systems now; one tends to find there is a core group of frequent users, the "digital asset managers" who run a digital media library. Then there is a much larger collection of occasional users who might access the system once or twice a year.

The frequent users might need to be able to access a dedicated interface while the others really do not want or need to. Many of the recent trend in DAM like SSO and direct integration with the tools described all point towards reducing the friction between the DAM application and where the asset will actually be used.

Issues With Current DAM Systems

The main issues I find with current DAM systems often relates to the sheer range and volume of different activities a modern DAM application has to provide -- while still offering some kind of serviceable GUI.

Although many vendors make a fair attempt, the results are mixed, such that all web based DAM systems have a multitude of issues that end users will be only too glad to tell you about if you dig a little deeper in a conversation with them. These include:

  • Over-complex metadata cataloging that discourages users from depositing media
  • Disconnect between cataloging and searching as well as a failure to reconcile the two activities
  • Simplistic or overly prescriptive workflow implementations that are unsuitable for real world use
  • Limited integration with other related products like WCM etc.
  • Underpowered APIs and poor documentation to accompany them
  • Insufficient batch processing capabilities and clunky user interfaces.

The last point has been mentioned to me numerous times. It often seems that current DAM systems are a hybrid without a clear appreciation of what different groups of users wants to do.

On the one hand, the interfaces tend to be quite complex and daunting for casual use. On the other, frequent users often resort to dedicated desktop applications outside a web DAM system (such as Lightroom) to do any serious cataloging work because the web interfaces are not fast, responsive or versatile enough.

When I first started reviewing emerging web DAM systems ten or more years ago, many vendors I spoke to at the time commented that they were good for end user browsing but probably unsuitable for extended metadata cataloging use. We don't seem to have really got much beyond that stage, even a decade later.

The Dawn Of The Multi-Product "DAM Solution" Era

It appears there are two distinct ways to resolve end user issues and all stakeholders in the DAM industry will have to decide which option is most suitable for them:

  1. The first is as a framework or digital media platform that other tools will plug into and leverage to extend their capabilities to support custom behavior, but lacking any versatile front-end capability (which client systems will provide).
  2. The second is as an interface to be used within another host application. The interface may be tailored and adapted for specific tasks on a case-by-case basis, but the delivery of fundamental capabilities is handled by one of the aforementioned frameworks.

Therefore, the era of mature DAM solutions might commence with the end of DAM systems as unique products. My expectation is that vendors will be ultimately unable to progress along both streams while simultaneously meeting all end user needs without producing very expensive and bloated products. Commercial factors will force them down one route or another over a period of time.

Conclusion

Like planes or trains bound for different destinations, when buying the DAM solutions, end users will need to select which one they want to be on based on where they plan to be going with their digital media management requirements.

If the needs are complex and multi-faceted, a framework that can be easily integrated will be the way to go. If they have more basic challenges and want a solution that already works with their favorite tools right away then they may be purchasing a DAM plug-in for the same tools. In either case, the start of the end of the DAM system as a unique single product class may well have already started.

Title image courtesy of rsooll (Shutterstock).

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