My infuriatingly unsuccessful quest for a good media asset management tool

Summary:The one in which David's search for a comprehensive, powerful, fast and flexible media asset management program turns out to be a complete bust. There is ranting. There is whining. Good times.

Picasa is special though. Picasa doesn't just open once you install it. Picasa gives you a choice: scan your entire hard drive, or just major folders. There's no "don't scan because I want to tell your where my stuff is" option. So Picasa scans. It found hundreds of folders filled with various parts from previous projects, none of which I wanted in my database.

What gave me the willies about Picasa, though, was its insistence that it wanted to share my images on Google+. I avoided this by refusing to log into Google with Picasa, but it made me nervous. I have a lot of licensed images I'm allowed to use in my own works, but not that I'm allowed to publish as standalone images. I didn't want Picasa to just upload all my files, willy-nilly.

And, besides, Picasa only handled bitmaps anyway.

With most of the other photo organizers, there's really not much of a difference. They all were a bit sucky in one way or another (I downloaded and tried at least eight of them beyond the usual suspects), and since there was a well-regarded professional option, I decided to discard the consumer products and look, once again, to Adobe.

This is where Lightroom comes into the picture.

No matter who you talk to, when you start talking about professional photo management, Lightroom comes up. So I bought Lightroom. I found a good one-day discount deal, but still, there's a hundred bucks down the toilet.

Lightroom is a little more fussy than some of the other photo organizers, in that it doesn't recognize PNG files. PNG files have pretty much replaced GIF images in Web design, are used all over the Web, and have the happy property of being able to be transparent, so if you want to stick a person in a presentation, you don't have to bring the background along with it.

Lightroom doesn't like PNG. Apparently, PNG doesn't handle metadata in a way that Lightroom considers robust enough, so if you have PNG images, well, you're just out of luck.

I don't need PNG images, but I do need transparent images. TIFF also supports transparent images and Lightroom supports TIFF. So I bought a couple of batch converter programs that convert from PNG to TIFF. For those of you keeping track, there went another hundred bucks, flushed away.

Can you see where this is going? Lightroom couldn't read the TIFFs produced by the conversion programs, although Photoshop could. But if I couldn't organize them in Lightroom, then I pretty much couldn't use Lightroom. And yes, I could convert the PNG images to transparent TIFFs in Photoshop, but even with some of Photoshop's batch settings, my desire to save time managing images was rapidly becoming a second full-time job (well, technically, it would be a fourth full-time job, but who's counting?).

And I haven't even talked about the curation process required to assign appropriate keywords, and so forth. We're not even there yet. That's another nightmare and lifetime of organizing, all on its own.

If you've been following along, you've figured out that Adobe's gift to professional photographers, Lightroom, couldn't cut the mustard with my project. Not only couldn't it handle vectors, it also couldn't handle PNGs or converted TIFFs.

Exit Lightroom, enter Bridge.

Bridge is the other "must-have" Adobe solution for managing files. The win with Bridge is that it can read all the different file formats, including the vector formats. Yay that.

But Bridge doesn't have a central database. Every time you enter a directory and want to see the images in it (or in its subdirectories), or search the images in it, Bridge does a new scan. I selected one collection of a mere 2500 photos and I tested Bridge on it. Ten minutes to do a scan. Leave the directory to look somewhere else and come back. Ten minutes again.

This, essentially, makes Bridge too slow to use. But the kicker was that Bridge won't show transparent PNGs as transparent.

It insists on putting a white background on them, so it's impossible, visually, to tell which PNGs are transparent, and which have a white background, unless you go ahead and open the image up in Photoshop -- which defeats the whole purpose of trying to use an organizer tool for quick image searches.

So where does this all leave me? Cranky. Very, very, very cranky.

Lightroom can't organize vectors, won't read PNGs, and won't understand converted transparent TIFFs. Bridge takes a lifetime to scan large directories of images (which is the whole point) and won't display transparent PNGs as transparent. The other photo organizers break in similar ways, and won't display vectors.

Worse, the curation process — trying to sort out, label, and keyword thousands upon thousands of images — is a job for a team of people over six months, not one lone professor working in the comfort of his home office.

I have to say that it astonishes me that there isn't a widely available solution to this. I'm flabbergasted (love that word!) that Adobe doesn't have just the perfect solution to this problem (beyond the somewhat anemic Bridge) because solving this sort of image management problem is at the heart of what Adobe does.

I'm also disappointed in the Web-based and enterprise-based solutions.

First, the barrier of entry is huge. There appears to be a disconnect between the needs of a professional designer with thousands of images and a large corporation buying an enterprise package.

Second, most of the Web gallery and enterprise solutions still use relatively primative upload dialogs and download buttons. There are very few solutions that will let you drag from a Web page into a desktop application, or to the desktop, and do it for a bunch of images, and those that do also seem to think the only type of image that exists is based on bitmaps.

Say what you will about cloud computing, the true, native desktop application is still better at some types of interaction.

So, I've given up on this project.

I have had two days until I need to start my next major series of PowerPoints, and I'll be doing them straight for about six weeks, so there's clearly no way I can solve this in two days. I'll probably spend a day doing a little disk file system housekeeping, but other than that, my search for media asset management is a complete bust.

Did I mention that I'm cranky? I want a cookie.

UPDATE: Well, I haven't completely given up. I never really do when there's a problem to be solved. I'm working on a new approach. Rather than look for a good media asset management tool, I've decided to focus on super-charged file managers, and see which ones are available with good media extensions. I've been looking at one over the weekend and it shows promise. So, stay tuned. There's probably another article on this topic coming real soon now.

I still want a cookie.

Topics: Storage, Google, SMBs


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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