Analysis: There's room for both Aperture, Lightroom to thrive

When Adobe followed the November 2005 release of Apple’s Aperture photo management app by putting out a beta of Lightroom, a workflow tool for professional photographers, the stage was set for a battle over the digital photography space between two tech industry giants. Almost immediately, users and pundits began speculating on which company would prevail—Apple, with its head start and ease of use, or Adobe, with its long-standing dominance of the photo software market?

The battle lines seemed to come into focus a little more this week, as both Apple and Adobe made news with their photo workflow tools. Apple announced a free update to Aperture that lets gives users storage options and adds integrated support with iLife ’06 and iWork ’06. Meanwhile, Adobe offered more details about Lightroom, highlighted by its decision to rebrand the app as Photoshop Lightroom.

But anyone expecting a fight to the finish over the professional photography market may wind up disappointed. Analysts say there’s more than enough business to go around for both Apple and Adobe and their respective applications.

“I don’t see it as a win-lose situation because [Aperture and Lightroom] have different strengths,” said JupiterResearch Senior Analyst Joe Wilcox.

Indeed, both Aperture and Lightroom have distinct strengths that will appeal to different segments of the photography market. Take Aperture, which brings Apple’s trademark ease-of-use to a complex task.

“What Apple does well is make its applications seem familiar to users and then extends the capabilities,” Wilcox said. “A photographer using Aperture will find the workflow to be familiar, like the way the application uses the loupe or light table. Apple’s approach to any product is to emphasize simplicity and hide complexity—Aperture does that very well.”

Aperture focuses on the professional photographer making the transition to digital imaging—an area that had gone unserved by other applications until Aperture’s arrival. By including digital equivalents of many tools those professionals used everyday, Apple has successfully carved out a market for its new program.

“Apple did change the market by focusing on the needs of the professionals,” said Chris Swenson, director of software industry analysis for market-research firm NPD. “Even though some of the technology wasn’t brand new the package that Apple delivered was.”

Adobe, on the other hand, has its own advantages, not the least of which is its dominance with Photoshop. By putting the Photoshop moniker on Lightroom, the app could become the default digital workflow application on the strength of Photoshop’s reputation and prominence among photographers. There’s also the possibility that Adobe could incorporate Lightroom in a future version of its Creative Suite bundle of creative professional applications.

Lightroom is also a cross-platform application, which could affect the purchase of the product in the future. “It’s very reasonable to expect these products could be used in a cross-platform environment and that is a big advantage for Adobe,” Wilcox said.

Still, analysts say the beta software awaits some needed improvements before its slated release early next year. “I don’t see the workflow features in Lightroom being as strong as Aperture, but the editing features are more straight forward,” Wilcox added. “That makes sense considering Adobe’s heritage in Photoshop.”

NPD’s Swenson adds that Adobe’s component-based system in Lightroom gives it a slight edge over Aperture, although the version 1.5 update announced this week includes a plug-in architecture that allows third-party developers to tap into Aperture.

Regardless of the two programs’ respective strengths, Swenson notes there are clear similarities in how both look as well as they tasks each one performs. And with the market for photography workflow apps still being relatively new, users are more likely to try both Aperture and Lightroom for the time being.

“It’s going to hard in the short term for Aperture to sell because Adobe Lightroom is free,” Swenson said. “We’ll have to wait until Adobe sets the price on Lightroom to see how it all shakes out.

“Apple deserves credit for redefining this industry, but it’s a wide open market,” he added. “Apple definitely changed the market, but Adobe is catching up.”

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