Digital Asset Management software has been around for more than two decades. In fact, Photoshop 1.0 was released only a few years before the first commercial DAM software became available. Since those days, Photoshop has become so popular that the product name is now used as a verb by people who have never even used the program. By contrast, DAM remains something we must explain over and over.

Sadly, Photoshop isn't the only new technology that’s trumped DAM. Consider Content Management Systems and Marketing Automation. These industries, like Photoshop, are perfect partners to DAM.

So what went wrong with the DAM industry? Where is the explosive growth? The IPOs? The use of “DAM” as a verb? In all these years, not a single DAM software solution has emerged as the clear market leader.

Let's be honest, the DAM industry is going nowhere right now. And here are the 5 reasons that I think are to blame.

1. Vendor Imagination

DAM vendors lack vision. Just as one could argue that PayPal should have been a product of Western Union, it's easy to argue that DropBox and Google Drive should have come from a DAM vendor. After all, back when DAM started, there was no Google or Dropbox. Had either happened, we would have our Photoshop of DAM today.

A few years ago, I had a painfully lengthy conversation with some senior people from a DAM vendor. Our goal for the meeting was to anticipate and plan for what happens next for DAM. Let me tell you, if you want to shut up a room full of DAM executives, ask them for ideas. In a different discussion, I heard a senior DAM exec say, “There is really nothing new to be done with DAM.”

And there you have my #1 reason why I think there is no Photoshop of DAM: DAM vendors respond to the future only after it happens.

2. Lack of Understanding

In addition to not knowing how to move DAM forward, DAM vendors have done a lousy job communicating the benefits of DAM. “Find anything you need,” they say. You know, just like you can do with Google or Spotlight. (I have intentionally left Windows search out here because I can never find what I need with that.)

With hazy explanations like that, it’s no wonder the world doesn't get it.

What's worse, when vendors do say something about DAM, it's usually something they've regurgitated from other sources. For evidence, check Twitter to see which DAM vendors are producing original content. And I don't mean content they've hired people to produce for them. If a DAM vendor knows anything about DAM, it should be able to speak about it in unique terms, in content authored by its own personnel. Agreeing with Henrik de Gyor, linking to David Riecks articles, or retweeting Real Story Group is not how DAM vendors will move this industry forward.

What we have today is a global market that barely understands the point of digital asset management, and we have DAM vendors that don’t know what to do about that.

By contrast, the development teams in charge of Photoshop understand their audience. Hell, they created their audience. Say what you will about Adobe licensing decisions, but Adobe is moving forward and they’re taking us all along for the ride.

Reason #2 why we have no Photoshop of DAM: DAM vendors don’t understand their customers or even the purpose of their products.

3. System “Lock-in”

When an organization buys a DAM, they enter into a long-term relationship with their vendor. DAM software is not a consumable that's easy to replace, and therein lies the problem.

But because it's difficult and costly to ditch your DAM and shack up with a new vendor, customers usually don't. Instead, they endure what can be unimaginable frustration. Of course, a “fix” is always around the corner, and the vendor’s new CEO or product line acquisition is somehow going to make it all better.

Really, baby, I love you and I promise we'll never fight again.

There are no standards for data storage in DAM, so it’s not easy to escape from a DAM that’s pissing you off. You can’t just unplug your metadata and assets from one DAM and plug them into another. This is bad news for disgruntled customers, but it’s great news for lazy DAM vendors. Business professionals call it “high switching costs.” If you can lock customers in to your product, they’re less likely to leave when something better comes along or, of course, when something goes wrong. It’s the same thing that keeps you going back to the bank you've hated for years.

System lock-in is life support for dinosaur DAM vendors that are no longer doing anyone any good, and it’s a crime against the natural evolution of the industry. Newer vendors who might actually have better solutions have to fight to be noticed. And even when they do get some attention, “Battered Customer Syndrome” limits the impact they have on the market.

Gimp fans are saying right now, “Yep, that’s exactly how it is.”

And this is reason #3 for not having a Photoshop of DAM.

4. Splintered Marketplace

The notion of a “Photoshop for Marketing Assets” and a “Photoshop for Brand Assets” sounds ridiculous because Photoshop can be used for all types of image assets. But so can digital asset management. So why do we have so many whatever asset management subcategories?

DAM vendors think it’s a good idea to “ghettoize” product offerings into unique categories, but doing so just causes market confusion that discourages prospects from moving forward with their DAM, MAM, BAM and VAM initiatives.

Learning Opportunities

Now, before anyone starts telling me I don’t understand the extremely important (yet extremely subtle) differences between these subclasses, let’s ask some DAM vendors to show us their Google AdWords campaign keywords. The fact is, though some vendors claim to offer highly optimized “marketing asset management” or “brand asset management” or “media management solutions,” they know better than to ignore all those “digital asset management” search clicks. DAM vendors know there’s no real difference between all those DAM subcategories, but they’re hoping you don’t.

Do some “DAM” systems offer features that others lack? Yes, and this is the only difference that matters when determining which system is best aligned with an organization’s needs.

Reason #4 for why there is no Photoshop of DAM is that there are too many DAM ghettos.

5. The “Dental Floss” Syndrome

I've said a hundred times that DAM is like dental floss: We don’t enjoy using it, but we appreciate the benefits that come from long-term use.

Now, try to take that notion to the market and make it sexy.

At our cores as humans, we’re motivated by some instinctive need to be relevant, or to at least seem so to others. To meet this end, we tend to favor activities that make us feel we've done something worthwhile, or that draw positive attention to us. It's why we post and tweet, and it’s why we develop emotional attachments to applications like Photoshop, but not DAM. (In fairness, over the past decade and a half, I've seen people become extremely emotional about their DAMs, but never in a good way.)

This gives the edge to creative applications through which users can differentiate themselves. Photoshop has been a stage from which many a professional career has been launched. Conversely, few people are famous for their DAM abilities or accomplishments.

In other words, there isn't much social ROI in knowing anything about DAM. Just compare the number of Photoshop tip blogs you can find online to the number of DAM tip blogs.

If you’re thinking Photoshop vs. DAM is an absurd comparison because there are so many more people using Photoshop than DAM, you’re helping me prove my point. How many Photoshop users don’t have use for digital asset management? In theory, because DAM is used at organizations by many more people than just designers, the numbers of global DAM users should be greater than the number of Photoshop users.

Reason #5: DAM isn't sexy enough to have die-hard fans who promote it to others.

Still Waiting on the Real DAM 2.0

As long as DAM vendors continue to follow one another blindly, and as long as no vendor is willing to take a chance on mixing things up, DAM will continue to stagnate as an enterprise-valued technology and practice.

Though there are many aspects of DAM that are naturally not sexy and not personally fulfilling, that didn't stop Dropbox or Google Drive. Until DAM vendors wake up and start getting creative, they will continue to stumble over one another for 11th place in a race that has no top-10 favorites.

Title image courtesy of Leigh Prather (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Always infotaitional, David has got a thing or two on his mind about DAM. Read more in 5 Good Reasons to Avoid DAM Software