Photo Plus focused on Adobe & Apple competition

As I’m typing this, I’m sitting outside the exhibition hall at the Javits Center in New York, watching a stream of photographers, graphic artists and a large group of art school students pass into the packed hall at Photo Plus East. I have always liked this show—the focus on imaging is right up my alley, and I like the mix of digital tools with the traditional stuff like lighting products and wedding portfolios.

Make no mistake, though, this is largely a digital show. The only place on the floor where I saw film was at Kodak’s booth. The company was actually giving it away, which I guess is one way for them to de-emphasize their film business (something they keep reinforcing halfheartedly, as they also keep losing money ).

Kodak’s struggles aside, there’s an energy at this year’s show that I haven’t seen in years past. The digital imaging world has always been a competitive one, but watching from the sidelines, I can tell you that we’re entering a whole new realm. Competition is alive and well, and the most prominent battleground right now isn’t between Canon, Nikon, and Sony, but between Apple and Adobe. The weapons? Aperture and Lightroom (excuse me, Photoshop Lightroom ).

If you go by numbers alone, Adobe’s owning this show. Their booth is more consistently packed than Apple’s, and they have a pretty heavyweight group of big-name photographers demoing Lightroom (Apple does too, to be fair, and I’ve had to wade through their packed booth on occasion). But a simple comparison of numbers belies the fact that this is a battle that won’t be won here in New York, or in the next few months. Both companies are girding up for a long fight. (I’ve heard a number of people close to Adobe say that they keep hearing “We won’t let that happen again,” a reference to Apple’s Final Cut Pro taking the film market away from Adobe Premiere.)

Lightroom is very cool; I’ve been using it side-by-side with Aperture for months now, and as I watch Adobe’s engineers respond to the public’s response to the public beta program, it’s apparent that they want to win. Lightroom is also beta , which gives it an advantage over Aperture—you don’t have to buy it, you can only try it for free. That helps with the disappointment factor; if you don’t like something, or find a missing feature, Adobe can throw up their hands and say, “hey, it’s beta.” And then, they can go direct their engineers to build this or that feature in.

Last night, at a press event, Adobe showed preliminary (and I mean very preliminary) versions of both the next Lightroom beta and Photoshop CS3, which won’t ship until some time next year. While they were very quick to coat the demos as “things we’re thinking about doing in some future release,” the message was clear: “We are the digital imaging experts, and we have plenty of stuff still left in the labs.”

(And, to answer the question in your head that stopped you in your tracks in the middle of that last paragraph, the Photoshop CS3 “possibles” included enhanced support for working with video files, some very whiz-bang, gee-whiz alignment tools for building better images from multiple shots, streamlined support for mobile device graphics creation, and a little bit more. Nothing deep enough to really weigh in on, other than to say that it was nice to see.)

The crowds at Apple’s booth were decidedly smaller than the ones over at the Adobe booth, but Lightroom’s been in beta for all of this year, which has created an aura around it that has yet to be tested by actual sales. But Apple isn’t just sitting back—the Version 1.5.1 announcement was welcome, but I heard more people talking about the free 30-day download version, largely as a way to take a fresh look at Aperture.

I’m very happy with Aperture, and, when I spoke informally with photographers who are using it, they’re by and large happy with it as well. Most of the users I spoke with had jumped on the Aperture bandwagon in the past few months, and almost everyone referenced the Version 1.5 announcement as the watershed release for them. Apple has done an excellent job on the image management part of the equation—and Aperture 1.5’s loosening of the image library restrictions made the difference for a lot of people. The fact that Apple has released three major revisions to Aperture in the past year is a strong statement about how much they want to win this battle as well.

What’s great about all this is the fact that there is competition. And that competition is pushing Apple and Adobe to create better products. It might not help the relationship between the two companies, but it will help all of us in the long run. I think there’s still another year to go on this one, and it might end with Lightroom (excuse me, Photoshop Lightroom) and Aperture coexisting in some weird way.

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