The Digital Ecosystem: Improving an Uncooperative Ecosystem

The Digital Ecosystem: Improving an Uncooperative Ecosystem


An ecosystem is a community of living and nonliving things that work together. But while this column in its very name refers to the imaging industry as an ecosystem—is it really? There are not only dozens of competitive companies in the photography business, but there are entirely different industries all at odds and ends with each other.

Can these disparate parts work better together? If they did, would it benefit themselves and their customers? Would all of us be able to better enjoy photography? Let’s answer those questions in the reverse order.

Hand in Hand

The first answer is unequivocally, yes. A big pain point for everybody in photography today remains how one product does not work with another, one file does not open in a different software product, one piece of hardware does not connect to a newer model.

Even in a product in which the hardware and software are made by the same company (yes, I’m looking at you, Apple), things don’t work together that well, photographically speaking. There’s one particular failing that I first pointed out more than five years ago on a conference stage, and it’s still the case. My smartphone knows who I am, where I am with its GPS transceiver, and more than that, it has my calendar in it that shows the event I am attending—and perhaps even what I might be doing. If I pointed the camera at the audience, the smartphone should be able to tap into enough information to tag a photo with not only the date and location but also the name of the event and even the names of a few the attendees who might be in the photograph I’m snapping.

Whenever I give this example, people point out that the data might be maintained by different sources that refuse to work together. I counter that this is all information to which I have access, so my phone, working as my proxy, should also have that same access.

Imperfect Memories
Why is this important? We always talk about photography as “capturing memories.” I am now writing a book, Photography & Memory, noting that while photographs are the best tools we have ever had for maintaining long-term memory in the face of advancing age and other issues, photos by themselves are not enough. A photograph might be worth 1,000 words, but conversely, without a few words it might be worthless.

A photo showing some people you are with today will mean nothing to you in 20 years if you no longer know the names of those people in the photograph, or why you were with them. Ideally, your own memory could contain enough information for the photograph to act as a trigger for your recollection. But in the age of Alzheimer’s, our brains are not ideal and we are going to need all the help we can get! The photography industry should be working on delivering that help right now.

Of course, that’s just one example of the ways in which photography could better serve the customer. We also live in a world in which most people snapping photos on their phones still do not know how to make a print of their latest images, or better yet, produce a photo book they will enjoy for the rest of their lives.

Let’s Talk Pies
That said, can competing businesses cooperate? If customers are only going to spend so much of their income on images, the makers of hardcopy print products, on-screen viewing software and displays, image management and enhancement tools, as well as capture devices, all must fight for their “share” of that revenue.

Or do they? That mind-set presumes a small pie that will only continue to shrink from the boom times of the last decade. Instead we need to envision a future in which that pie gets gut-bustlingly bigger. Is that possible? Yes, I believe it is. After all, as I’ve been fond of saying, the entire photography business used to have a very small audience: not every family or household had even one camera. Families had perhaps one memory keeper who took photos just a few times a year, at birthdays and major holidays. Enthusiasts were few and far between. Despite this, it was a big and profitable business for decades.

Today of course, the industry does not enjoy the built-in revenue of developing film and printing pictures. But it does enjoy the largest customer base ever possible: almost everybody has a phone that is also a camera, and almost everybody, in practical terms, enjoys taking photos almost daily. In all likelihood there has never been a business that has had its customer base boom so explosively in such a short time. Such a boon should not be cause for complaint but rather for celebration. Of course, that all depends upon some source of revenue coming in from those billions of new users.

Come Together

In the meantime, as noted, the competing businesses and overlapping industries that make up the overall photography market do need to work better together. Inciting such alliances is the goal of the Future Imaging Summit, produced by the not-for-profit Association of Imaging Executives, a PMA member group. It will be held January 4, 2015 in Las Vegas.

Full disclosure: I am the producer and moderator of this conference. I implore you to contact me if you would like to speak on one of the discussion panels, or otherwise contribute to our goals of interdisciplinary cooperation.

This year we are adding a new event to our agenda—the Visionary Awards ceremony in which we will praise the prime producers in the same four categories we discuss in our conference sessions: Cameras & Image Capture; Sharing & Mobile Imaging; Software & Image Enhancement; and Print & Output. The ceremony will be held in conjunction with PMA’s Digital Imaging/Photography Marketplace at the 2015 International CES, on January 8.

The AIE is working with other industry associations in this endeavor, such as the PMDA—led by the publisher of this very magazine!

We hope you will also join with us as we all seek to make this industry a more pleasurable and profitable one for everybody.