Saturday, July 19, 2014

Aperture and Apple's "Pro" Failure

Apple recently announced that they would stop developing their flagship photography product named Aperture, in favor of their forthcoming consumer application called "Photos."  I am an Aperture user and this affects me.  But since Aperture's popularity was declining anyway, Apple's announcement really doesn't affect anyone else, right?  Not so fast.

Apple's Aperture and their primary competitor, Adobe's Lightroom, are photography management software products, sometimes called digital asset management software.  Unlike Photoshop, which allows you to edit your photograph once — destructively — Aperture and Lightroom save the step-by-step "recipe" of changes you apply to each image, and you can go back and adjust the recipe later.  This is an extremely powerful feature, and is almost like a simple "programming language" for editing images.

Aperture was billed as one of Apple's "Pro" products.  This is their marketing language for products targeted at professionals (or professional wannabes like me).  When I bought it in 2010, Aperture appealed to me because I thought their user interface for editing, adjusting and cataloging photographs was better than Lightroom.  There are some truly excellent features like face and geographic tagging.  But another thing that appealed to me was that, up to that point, Aperture was competing head-to-head with Lightroom, releasing new versions every year or so with great enhancements.  This was the kind of behavior I was looking for: excellent quality and a pattern of performance suggesting that Apple would continue to improve the product.  Boy, was I wrong.

Almost from the moment I bought Aperture, Apple scaled back significant development.  Sure, there were several minor "point" releases that added some small new features and improved stability, but Aperture 3.4 today has mostly the same feature set as Aperture 3.0 did in 2010.  Most of the development has been to keep up with Apple's inexorable push towards iCloud and their camera roll concept from other products, but not to add true new features to Aperture.  Meanwhile, Lightroom has been leaping ahead with new features like lens perspective corrections and truly awesome RAW development improvements.

Not only that, but the Aperture developers did not fix bugs that persisted across multiple versions of the product.  I reported several bugs within Apple's Radar bug reported system that were trivial, obvious bugs.  Bugs like typos and arithmetic failures.   I provided clear evidence of where the bug was within the program, and yet the bugs languished for years without being fixed by Apple.

So perhaps it's not a big surprise that, after nearly four years of quasi-stagnation, Apple finally admitted that it would stop development of Aperture.  They will release a version of Aperture compatible with Yosemite, Apple's forthcoming version of OS X... and that's it.  There will be a new application called Photos which will supersede iPhoto and Aperture, and have some of the features of each.  Notably, Apple does not claim that Photos is a "Pro" application.  Apple will truly be terminating a "Pro" application, not replacing it with another "Pro" application.  This does fit in with Apple's trend toward basic high-end consumer-oriented products, and avoiding complicated products, but it stinks for photographers who committed to Aperture.

One response I've seen is that Apple just stopping new development, and is not taking away the existing version of Aperture from me, so the result is not so troublesome.  Nope, that's not a reasonable response.  We expect software to have basic upgrades, and not to rot.  For whatever reason, Apple has tied Aperture intimately to the inner core of their operating system in the past.  New versions of Aperture typically do not work with old versions of the operating system, and vice versa.  Once Apple stops upgrading Aperture, it will probably only be one or two more years before it no long functions with the current OS X release.  New camera?  Sorry, your old version of Aperture doesn't support it.  New computer? Sorry, you can't use it.  Want to upgrade to a new OS?  Sorry, it's not necessarily compatible with Aperture.  Want to run Aperture under older version of OS X in a virtual machine?  Sorry Apple doesn't support that.  Apple has basically spelled out the eventual lock-in doom of the product, even if they haven't forbidden me to continue to use it.

Some people will say, "oh well, you'll just have to learn some other software instead."  By which they mean to learn Lightroom, which is the only other game in town.  And yes, now I'll have to learn a new set of software idioms to manage my photographs.  But that kind of comment misses the point.

Most of the time I spend is not learning the product features, but using the product features to edit photographs.  Those editing "recipes" are locked within Aperture's proprietary library storage system, and not open for inspection.  The recipes are not compatible or transferrable to a new software system.  All the hundreds of hours I spent editing photographs are now locked in to Aperture.  Moving to new software means I have to somehow replicate all of those recipes.  Unless Lightroom developers do a mammoth reverse-engineering process, the recipes will probably be stuck within Aperture forever.  

That's also the reason that simply exporting the photographs from Aperture is not a solution.  Any edits are baked into the resulting images and not easily readjustable.

As a "Pro" product, I really would expect Apple to keep the community informed about their product plans.  Unfortunately, this is not how Apple works.  Apple is notoriously secretive about new product plans.  Apple fans are often gleeful at how secretive Apple is.  But secretiveness is not an appropriate behavior for a "Pro" product.  As customers who dump thousands of hours and manage thousands of photographs with this software, we deserve to see where the product is going.  If Apple can't figure this out, then they are pricks or fools, or maybe both.

The irony here is that Apple fans (including me) merrily pointed out that Microsoft eventually reneged on their "Play's for Sure" product marketing campaign for music players, when Microsoft could no longer guarantee that customer's music could be played for sure.  But the Aperture experience is precisely another "Plays for Sure" type of event.  Apple's apparent commitment to a product means nothing if they don't continue to back it up.

What does this all mean?  Your personal data is not safe in a third party's hands, ever.  I trusted that Apple's highest level "Pro" product line and pattern of performance meant something, but they did not.

People rushing to use iPhones or iPads in their life or business, please be very careful.  Apple has no commitment to support your future use of these products or the data stored within.  iPhoto and the new Photos application have exactly the same lock-in problems that Aperture has.  So if these products are canceled, do you have a data exit strategy?

People rushing to Apple's new iCloud offering should really take notice.  Apple doesn't really provide any commitment to you that this will be supported in the future.  Remember iWeb, .mac, or MobleMe?  Well they're gone now, and so is the data hosted there.  Past performance is probably a pretty good indicator of what's going to happen to your iCloud data.

Apple dropping out of the professional photo management software business will also be a blow to the category as a whole.  Now, with Lightroom being the single dominant product in the category, there is little true competition any longer.  Adobe's promises to "double down" to support Aperture customers sounds good on paper, but Adobe really doesn't have a strong incentive to increase their support at all, since there are not many other realistic competitors that Aperture customers could go to.

As for me, I'm not quite sure what I will do.  I already own a copy of Lightroom, so that's the obvious migration path, but I don't relish all of the work to actually do the migration effort.   And for that matter, I don't really trust Adobe to do any better on storing my data for me, but at least they have a longer track record now than Apple does.  I wish there were an open alternative for photograph editing and management in the same style as Aperture or Lightroom, but there really isn't.  I would really like my computer and software to serve me and my needs, but more and more often, I find that I am the one who is serving my software, and the corporate makers of the software.