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With 200,000 users, Lightroom Mobile finds a foothold

People have put 100 million images into catalogs for the mobile version of Adobe's photo-editing software. It only works on iOS devices now, but Android support should arrive this year.

Lightroom Mobile lets photographers edit photos, fiddling with parameters including white balance, shadow and highlight recovery, and exposure.
Lightroom Mobile lets photographers edit photos, fiddling with parameters including white balance, shadow and highlight recovery, and exposure. Stephen Shankland/CNET

COLOGNE, Germany -- In the months since Adobe Systems' April debut of Lightroom Mobile, the mobile photo-editing software has attracted a sizable population of more than 200,000 monthly users.

Tom Hogarty, Adobe's director of product management for photography, revealed the statistic in an interview ahead of the Photokina show here this week. The conference is a magnet for the sort of photo enthusiasts who gravitate to software like Lightroom or rivals including DxO Labs' DxO Optics Pro, Corel's AfterShot, Phase One's Capture One Pro.

The mobile expansion of the Lightroom franchise is crucial for Adobe to maintain its lead over those rivals -- and to extend its power in the imaging business to the mobile market where it's much weaker. The 200,000 customers so far have used Lightroom Mobile to store more than 100 million images, which averages to 500 per person -- a solid foothold.

Lightroom runs on Mac and Windows PCs, letting people edit photos, organize them, publish them, and give them captions and titles and location tags. The software has been successful enough that Apple ceased development of its rival Aperture -- although Apple is a very different company now than nine years ago when Aperture 1.0 beat Lightroom to market.

Lightroom Mobile synchronizes to Lightroom on a PC, letting people designate which images are mirrored on a mobile device. The first version of Lightroom Mobile worked only on iPads, but iPhone support arrived in June and the Android version is due before the end of the year, Hogarty said. That next release is trickier given the wide diversity of Android hardware on the market.

"The Android release is next, and we'll do our best at feature parity with iOS, but the platform does require more effort to address multiple hardware configurations," Hogarty said. "We'll know more when we've completed more testing and closer to launching."

Adobe's initial Lightroom Mobile release is limited: it's impossible to perform some editing operations possible on a PC, like brightening just a portion of an image. Adding metadata such as captions and keywords isn't an option, either. But Hogarty sees the software as a work in progress; the company wanted to release something so users could get started and Adobe could get a better feel for what needs to be done next.

Top feature requests

"Most vocal features were around star ratings after we introduced the iPad version with only pick flags," Hogarty said. Adobe has several mechanisms to let people designate important photos, one of them being flagging photos as picks or duds, but photographers also sort their photos with star ratings and color labels.

"We continue to challenge ourselves to create a seamless experience with multiple rating and ranking methodologies, so I think we have some room to grow here," Hogarty said.

Another top request is the ability to edit photos with users' own preset styles, not just Lightroom's built-in options. And customers want the ability to synchronize photos stored in smart collections -- groups of shots that Lightroom automatically organizes around user-set rules such as the use the "wedding" keyword.

When Adobe launched the iOS version, the number of monthly average users doubled to its current rate, Hogarty said. People use iPhone and iPad versions differently, he added.

"What's interesting is that the use cases of 'lean back and enjoy your photography' on iPad is substantiated by a higher average session time," with people spending more than 10 minutes with the app 24 percent of the time, he said. On iPhones, only 18 percent of sessions last more than 10 minutes.

But iPhones are heavily used to take photos. Before the iPhone launch of Lightroom Mobile, 98 percent of people's images were came from a PC. For those with Lightroom Mobile for iPhone, though, 25 percent of images added to their accounts are taken with the iPhone.

"I found that high and a good indication of the initial fit with a mobile photography workflow," Hogarty said.

Boosting Creative Cloud subscriptions

The more features Lightroom Mobile gets, the better able it is to stand on its own instead of act as an accessory to the PC version. It's hard to imagine Lightroom working solely on a tablet or phone with today's technology, though, since photo archives take up a lot of storage space and tapping into a cloud-based catalog requires high-speed, reliable networks.

Adobe has a vested interest in keeping a link between the mobile and PC versions of Lightroom: its Creative Cloud subscription. Lightroom Mobile is included in the subscription, which costs $10 per month for Photoshop and Lightroom and $50 per month for Adobe's full suite of software. The company generated a lot of ill will when it discontinued future development of its Creative Suite software, meaning people who want the latest features of programs like Photoshop, After Effects, and Illustrator must sign up for a subscription.

In contrast, Adobe still sells the latest Lightroom the old way, through a perpetual license. The more people embrace Lightroom Mobile, the more it means Adobe is coaxing photo enthusiasts toward subscriptions.

Faster image processing?

One of Lightroom's main chores is to convert the original raw data captured by camera image sensors into more usable formats like JPEG or TIFF for publication or sharing. The conversion of raw photos is processor-intensive, though, and as cameras get more and more megapixels, the computing challenge gets harder.

If raw processing is a challenge for PCs, it's even more so for Lightroom Mobile running on chips with less horsepower. Adobe has some options to augment the software with its own servers, but again, network constraints make that difficult.

Another option is to move processing away from a device's main chip, the central processing unit (CPU) to its graphics processing chip (GPU). GPUs handle more and more computing work, in particular for jobs that can be broken down into smaller chunks that run in parallel.

With the latest version of Adobe's Premiere Pro video-editing software, it's done just that for footage recorded in raw formats.

"The Premiere Pro CC engineers keep finding ways to get more out of the GPU ... including new GPU-based debayering," Adobe said in a blog post about the latest Creative Cloud release of Premiere Pro. "Debayering" is the process of calculating red, green, and blue levels for each pixel; most image sensors only capture one of those colors per pixel originally.

So how about a GPU boost for Lightroom? Not so easy, Adobe said:

We're definitely looking at opportunities to utilize the GPU for performance gains, but it's important to understand the relationship between the CPU and GPU. It's very "expensive" to move data to and from the GPU relative to the current processing time for the CPU. One of our challenges has been obtaining a GPU benefit that outweighs the expense of moving the large chunks of information from disk to CPU to GPU and back.

It's also harder to manage with still images -- often as large as 36 megapixels with current Sony and Nikon cameras -- compared to 8-megapixel video frames

But Adobe isn't ruling out a GPU boost someday.

"We've been actively evaluating this area for many years and look forward to sharing the benefits once we're able to build them into the product," the company said.