I'm working on a First Take of Adobe Lightroom, the company's newly announced competitor for Apple Aperture, but I keep getting distracted by the significance of every aspect of the product except for the product itself. So to purge my brain of the tangential thoughts crowding it, I'm dumping them on you, just like a song that I can't get out of my head.
If you've been following Adobe's products for any length of time, you'd have noticed that the company traditionally follows a rigid pattern: product announcement, press beta roughly a month later (OK, so maybe you didn't notice that), followed by product shipment within the next three or so months. Yes, there've been exceptions, but none of those exceptions has included the public release of a partially complete product or a product announcement with an open-ended or far-off ship date--at least none that I can remember and none of a major product.
A sudden change of corporate heart? Nope.
Two key things had to happen to make it possible. First, when Adobe ingested Macromedia (which it seems to have swallowed whole, without chewing), it acquired an entire platform for hosting open-source-style development projects. Macromedia Labs, which Adobe rebranded as Adobe Labs faster than you can say search and replace, has been a model of Internet software development for years. With a Wiki, forums, and a veteran public download infrastructure, overnight Adobe gained access to the type of feedback that formerly cost a lot of money to acquire. Plus, Lightroom is a fairly low-risk product with which Adobe can test the waters.
The second pivotal piece any company would need is the ability to provide stable code that users would be willing to install and try. And, well, wouldn't you know--the latest programming cult, Agile Development, enables just that. (Why a cult? It has a manifesto and drooling fans, requires daily meetings, and uses chummy euphemisms such as scrum master. Programmers talk about it the way Apple groupies talk about their iPods.) Though I innately distrust anything that inspires such slavish devotion, the Agile development process provides two important benefits for software manufacturers. By completing small chunks of an application and implementing a few features or changes at a time, coders in the trenches can feel a not-to-be-underestimated sense of accomplishment rather than the endless gerbil-wheel coding that's required by a billion-line piece of software. And marketing departments have what they've wanted for years: the ability to shout "Stop! It's ready! Ship it!" without worrying that it's still a bug-infested mess. They can also demo it for the press and analysts much sooner, thus initiating buzz even earlier in the cycle.
So why do I sound so cranky? Aside from the fact that I don't have any other moods, it all comes back to those tangential thoughts roiling around in my brain as I stroll through Lightroom: When can we stick a fork in it and proclaim it done? Can I criticize Lightroom for lacking some of Aperture's capabilities given the fluidity of the software spec? (If you have in-house developers at work, perhaps you've been gifted with tools that are stable but don't do quite enough because the feature you really need isn't slated to be implemented for another three months?)
Whew. Glad I got that out of my system. Now maybe I can finally write some screenshot captions for Adobe's pale imitation of Apple's imaging work-flow tool--at least as of January 8, 2006, 4:35 p.m. ET.