There’s been an uproar in the photographic world on Monday, September 17th, 2012. Google bought Nik Software* (I recommend scrolling down to the comments), maker of excellent plugins for Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture (Windows and Mac). Nik users fear that Google will take the knowledge out of Nik software and discontinue the products that it is not interested in.
And I join the choir of people fearing the worst. Why? Because I think Nik Software has brilliant technology and products**, and they gave it away to the wrong company – Google is a very different business…
Because there’s a LOT of text to follow, here’s a photo that I processed in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4 plugin (I’ve been using the “Sunlight” filter, which brings detail into the shadows, and adds a gentle soft glow).
Nik Software’s plugins aim at photography enthusiasts – the type of people who take it seriously enough to spend (quite some) good money on it. Nik Software’s “Complete Collection” in the Lightroom/Aperture edition costs more than twice the amount that Lightroom costs alone, and the Photoshop edition costs almost as much as Photoshop itself. People are buying it because it’s worth it.***
Question 1: is that the audience that Google is targeting with their products? No. Google users enjoy free, ad-sponsored products (and of course, some idiots commented “let’s hope the plugins will be free now!” …sigh). And does Google have now, or ever had in the past, a strong commitment to desktop products? And more specifically, to specialized plugins (because that’s what Nik Software offers) that target, from Google’s perspective, a niche market? No again. So, why would they, all of a sudden? Well, my guess is they don’t, of course.
Google is most likely looking at Nik’s image processing knowledge, and maybe at their Snapsneed application (not necessarily as an actual Android port, but as as a representation of the mobile image processing knowledge that Nik software has). We don’t know for sure. We don’t know what Google wants to do, and we don’t know what has gotten into Nik Software’s executives to sell their stuff to Google (other than $$$). I want to give both of them the benefit of doubt, but Google has a history of acquisitions, and it doesn’t look good (the first comment to Nik’s announcement nails it: “Hope you have better luck than those before you…“), and Nik’s announcement reads like a notice from the new breed of entrepreneurs: innovate and create while you wait to be bought, then cash in and move on.
But needless to say, the plugins don’t stop working now that Google has acquired the company. I’ll happily keep using them – but what about next year? What will be after the next update to Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture? What if I have to update my computer and will get a new operating system? Will they be compatible? Will there be updates? Will there be bugfixes? There’s an awful silence from both Google and Nik Software on the matter, and it’s causing anxiety among it’s users.
We do have some comments by G+ head honcho Vic Gundotra (in this post) on Nik Software: “We will double down on the investment. I love all their products.” (but the fact that he loves their products doesn’t mean that Google will continue them in a form that is useful to us). He also commented: “Don’t worry. We believe in the pro space and will continue to invest in these important plugins.” (in this post). We will see how this turns out. Unless there’s a sudden shift of paradigm, I don’t see where the Nik plugins fit into Google’s product portfolio (see below).
It’s also quite puzzling that, as of writing this, the announcement on the Nik page received about 180 comments by concerned users, but neither Nik nor Google seem to be willing to put up an announcement or a reply that says plain and simple: “yes, we will continue developing the plugin series”. And I know Google a little bit. They’re not going to break the silence [see UPDATE at the bottom of this post – pleasant surprise!]. They’re not going to make a commitment to continuing Nik’s plugins (and that translates to “sorry, but that’s it” usually).
Of course, there’s the typical group of hooray-sayers on Google+, composed of Trey Ratcliff (“an exciting move from Google, and another indication that Google takes photography very seriously”), Colby Brown (“Does anyone still think Google isn’t serious about engaging with photographers?”), etc. etc. – so lets have a look at how “serious” Google really is about photography, and about photographers. What do they have in stock right now, product-wise?
Picasa. Not Google’s product. In 2004, Google bought Picasa – a then commercial application for managing photos, and made it available for free. It’s a lovely little program, surprisingly fast, and with some unique features (like collages). It aims at the occasional JPEG user that stores, organizes and shares snapshots. Google targets the masses with it. Picasa does have raw support, but it’s woeful. But how has Picasa evolved over the years? In the wake of Google’s experimentation, it’s got face recognition, and an added “face movie” on top of it’s movie slideshow feature. Other than that, it’s basic feature set is mostly unchanged, the effects have gone through some iterations and refinements but comparing to other image editing/organizing products, the progress of Picasa can safely be described as, hmmm, almost static. The fact that it is still available is almost a miracle.
Picasa Web Albums. It’s dead Jim, part 1. Google’s own product. It used to be my favorite photo sharing service, but over time, it began lacking features as the world kept moving. Features that Flickr always had, like groups, virtual albums/sets, collections, that sort of thing. It just never evolved into a more full-blown photo sharing service. It was held back. Why I don’t know. It also was never quite up to par with regards to appearance and style. Picasa Web Albums always looked more “hackish” and geeky, and less polished. That’s ok for sharing family pics, but it’s not so cool for fine art, landscapes, stylish portrait work, weddings, the sort of thing that enthusiast and professional photographers do. Today, PWA is 98% abandoned wasteland. Held alive by a small group of die-hard Google+ deniers, and the fact that it is the sad and unfitting back-end storage for Google+, integrated hastily and hard-pressed for time.
PicNik. It’s dead Jim, part 2. A flash-based online photo editor, acquired by Google. Integrated into Picasa and Picasa Web Albums, and then devoured into the Google+ collective (no sign of it’s editing features when you add images on Blogger however – which is just more proof that every Google product stands on it’s on, and doesn’t share any common platform), torn apart, fractions of it integrated into Google+, the rest abandoned and discontinued. A part of the former developers started PicMonkey soon after. I wonder what they have to say in private when you ask them about the great Google acquisition…
Google+. It has attracted an enormous amount of photographers. Not for it’s photo sharing features though, for it’s networking, and for the reach of a “normal” audience. The type of people that photographers are hoping to sell something to. But if we leave cosmetic gimmicks like alterations of the lightbox, and the transfer of features from PWA into the G+ “frontend” away, the photo sharing features in Google+ have received only very little real improvements and new features over the ~1 year that the product is life now (which is partly due to the fact that PWA as a back-end is actually a hindrance because it doesn’t really work in favor of G+).
[and perhaps I should mention the “Google+ Photographers Conference” here – two days for $350 and you get to see the “G+ photography influencers” talk on a platform created for them (to sell their services;-). My take: pay $199 for a one year subscription to Kelby Training – it offers slightly more usable knowledge for photographers.]
Google+, in contrast to Flickr, does not offer a method for licensing photos (like Flickr does with Getty) – at least potentially benefiting those who contribute to it and make the product what it is. What’s more, the old Picasa Web Albums “back end” defaults to letting visitors order prints of your images! (if you’re logged in with your Google account, the link will take you to the PWA settings page “Privacy & Permissions”.)
Google also does not explicitly forbid uploading foreign (ie. other people’s, copyrighted) content into user accounts in their Terms of Service. Photo sharing sites like Flickr (“Don’t upload anything that isn’t yours.”) and 500px (“You represent and warrant that: You are the owner of all rights, including all copy rights in and to all Content you submit to the site”) are very clear about that in their terms. Google+? Look for it. You won’t find it. Google is passive: “We respond to notices of alleged copyright infringement and terminate accounts of repeat infringers according to the process set out in the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”
That has lead to an awful number of people who share photos that are not theirs in their own albums (instead of simply posting a link to the original work). They call themselves “curators” and adorn themselves with borrowed feathers, often not even giving proper attribution. The hunter and gatherer type. Google does nothing about it, and simply looks the other way, referring to their TOS that they will remove content – if only the original copyright owner notifies them. Why not make it a rule instead? How difficult is it to add something as simple as Flickr’s “Don’t upload anything that isn’t yours” to their terms? Is that how very seriously Google takes photographers?
Question 2: Does anyone really think that THIS company will all of a sudden make a commitment to pro/enthusiast photographers and continue developing plugins for a niche market composed of (in comparison to the entire Google user base) a handful of users? They have nothing to support that claim. I’ll be damned if it happens, and we’ll find out. I created a Google+ event to remind us of it. 😉
So that’s why I think it was a bad day for Nik Software users. I’m sorry – I don’t buy promises, and I don’t buy speculation. I judge Google from what they are doing right now, and from what they have done in the past. We’ll see what the future will bring.
Oh and, yes. I know that there’s a lot of photography enthusiasts working at Google. A lot of people that LOVE photography, and value it. I know some of them, and some of them are good friends (despite all verbal thrashings on this blog;-). But that doesn’t say that it shows in their products, or policies, as I’ve lined out above. The reason for that is simply that the majority of these fine engineers do not have much of an influence on where Google “as a whole” steers it’s products.
UPDATE: in a Google+ post on Friday, September 21st, 2012 Vic Gundotra announced: » […] we’re going to continue offering and improving Nik’s high-end tools and plug-ins. […] Together with Nik, we’ll continue to put “photography first.” «
*) Also, the length of the announcement is quite surprising. It reads like “thanks, it’s been good to know you, fare thee well, we cashed in, that’s it, goodbye”.
**) I didn’t mention them much on my blog – I always figured that Lightroom and camera gear was enough tech-babble already. 😉
***) Besides that, we’re talking about taking 16-bit TIFF files that contain a maximum of information from our raw converter into the Nik plugins; these files have a size between 60MB (D700) and 250MB (D800) – it’s not the type of files that Google’s software offerings of today would process satisfyingly, nor would I expect that any future “cloud” offerings for image processing will make it desirable to work that files of that size online (think about HDR, where you might have five of these files to process in HDR Efex Pro). Maybe we will be there in 5 years when we have sufficient upstream bandwidth in every household, but until then, we will have to keep working with local files, software and plugins.