October 15, 2015
In the Beginning
Nearly 5 years ago, two intrepid guys took their photography hobby and years of development background to the relatively new world of the iPad. The iPad was only 8 months old, iOS 3.2 was the latest and greatest, and Lightroom 3 was just released. It was the gold rush era of apps.
Of course, those two guys were Chris Morse and Chris Horne. We had tried other startups in the past, and Morse had been bringing up the idea of doing an iPad app, but we couldn’t come up with a good concept. Horne went away for a scuba diving trip, and came back with the problem of having to lug a computer on vacation to wade through pictures in Lightroom. With that, the idea of Photosmith was born. Many phone calls, napkin diagrams, notebook sketches, and bookmarks of research later, we finally started coding.
For the next 3 years, we poured our hearts into the app. We gathered input from the photography community via forums, friends, and local photo club meetings. We crafted press releases and press packs. We gave out demos to clubs and groups, and worked hard on support to try to address each problem. We attracted others who joined the team to help with the effort. We issued a lot of updates to address issues. It was exciting and satisfying. It was exhausting and depressing. It was like running for the goal and being beaten and kicked all along the way. It was… a startup.
Apr 23, 2011 - Version 1
The initial version of Photosmith was released. We missed a number of core features in the first round – some were intentional (sync only from iPad to Lightroom, select only one image at a time) to limit the project size, and some were just poor foresight (support only for Canon CR2 and Nikon NEF files). The app was built on iOS 4.2 and the plugin on Lightroom 3.1.
Our enthusiasm for our first release, despite a lot of effort on the details, was quickly squashed by the overwhelming number of requests that we received for new features and bugs. We quickly followed up with a number of minor versions to fix the immediate bugs and add support for more camera formats.
However, we struggled with app crashes- nearly all due to iOS itself. To tap into the Camera Connection Kit, we had to use the built-in photo library tools, and thus Apple’s official photo management library: ALAssets. ALAssets was a poorly designed library, and lamented by developers across the web. Nearly all functions require stopping activity that controls the user interface (a design unique to ALAssets), and even if the function works, it still has a tendency to just crash the app randomly. We were never able to wrangle ALAssets enough to have a usable app.
Jun 2, 2012 – Version 2
We took everything we learned in the first round, brought on a new designer and some other new team members, and reworked the app. It got a whole new user interface, building on top of the existing sync and image management engine that we had already written. The big changes were support for iOS 6, multi-image select, two way sync, and support for the new Retina displays.
As with the first version, we issued over a half dozen updates to address bugs and try to tame more ALAssets bugs, but it was clear that even if our app’s code was completely bug free, it’d never be extremely stable while we relied on ALAssets. So… work started to rid ourselves as much as possible from the integrated beast.
Jun 3, 2013 – Version 3
The most recent major version focused on changes to how the images are stored and managed in the app. Notably, we moved ALAssets out of the main sections of the app and only used it during the import window. And voila – the app was much more stable. Along the way, we brought on another developer to assist with adopting a true raw processing engine natively within the app, and thus added support for nearly all camera raw formats.
The next couple of iOS releases brought major changes:
- iOS 7 brought a brand new interface, requiring new approaches to design, not just slapping in some new graphics.
- iOS 8 brought a brand new Photo app and library, rendering the old ALAssets obsolete (but still available). This new library was a huge improvement over ALAssets, but would require yet another complete rewrite of our image management engine.
The last version of Photosmith was released Mar 20, 2014 – the very last day that iOS 5 apps were allowed. Any app released afterwards had to support iOS 7. We had strived from the very beginning to retain support for iPad 1′s because many of our customers have iPad 1. But after this last version, we were at a crossroads.
We had completely re-written the user interface in Version 2 to support new features and to take advantage of the then-new Retina display. We had later completely re-written the photo management engine to move to a sandbox-model and away from ALAssets after years of pain. With iOS 7, we’d have to re-design the UI again and with iOS 8, we’d have to rework our image management engine again!
And that’s when we put the brakes on. We’re photography enthusiasts and have always worked on Photosmith as a nights-and-weekend project. It was difficult to constantly keep up with ever-changing Lightroom versions, Facebook and Dropbox API’s and other changes. But to have the main operating system make such drastic changes was devastating to morale, and ultimately, the project; it’s demoralizing to constantly re-write the same parts to try to keep up with Apple’s random changes. Especially when we wanted to focus on features, stability, and other app-related features – not just chasing to keep up with what we had.
After our 3.1 version released, the development slowed so we could get our lives back together. Our marriages were on the rocks, we had largely been absent from our kids’ lives, and our health was greatly suffering. The project that we were so passionate about was slowly killing us.
Fast forward to this summer and to iOS 9 beta. iOS 9 introduces another feature that will seriously impact Photosmith: multitasking. Multitasking not only impacts the user interface, but also memory management – it’s hard enough to render 20+ megapixel images when the app has the iPad’s full attention, but having to share the same memory with another app at the same time introduces a whole new set of problems. It also eliminated all possibility of a “new coat of paint” approach to catching up to iOS 7+ style UI instead requiring a throw-the-baby-with-the-bathwater approach.
In the end, the biggest roadblock to development wasn’t the raw time, ideas, or dedication. It was that the platform (iOS mostly) continued to change under us. Yes, progress is good, and software continues to evolve. However, when major changes were required every 12 months just so that the software could continue to operate, it severely cuts into what additional development time is left over for the app itself. Apple has created a fantastic platform with iOS, but is doing a disservice to its developers.
So What Now?
Starting a business is tough work. And yet it’s exhilarating to create something and know that other people value it enough to purchase it. It’s also tough to know when to stop. We’ve had many discussions on what features to work on next; however, we’re facing the prospect of a major overhaul of 500,000 lines of code just to make it work on the current version of iOS. And that’s a tough pill to swallow.
We’ve always gone out of our way to be as fair as possible to our customers – the photography community, including being up front with our customers. That includes stating where we are with the app and where we’re heading. And now we’re letting everyone know that we’re leaving Photosmith where it is. Any further updates would require a time and energy investment for which we simply can’t commit right now.
Stats and Figures
The trend these days seems to open the doors to the vault at the end of a project and show everything. We want to do the same, to share with other app developers and enterprising entrepreneurs so maybe they can benefit from it. Read Chris Morse’s review of Photosmith’s economics and use history, with informative graphs and stats here.
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In our previous post, we announced that we are retiring Photosmith and we offered a history of it’s development and the challenges we faced. One thing that is surely true, is that we would have never gotten here without the support of the entire iOS developer community and the many FOSS libraries that help build it. So in the spirit of giving back, for whatever it’s worth, here’s a look into our financials. Note: these graphs were generated by Morse, who got a C in Statistics, so know going in that there’s rounding error, sampling error, observer bias, etc. But I did try my best to be accurate and I’ll note in each if there are any known discrepancies.
Those that have followed us for a long time likely think we’ve made millions off of the app. After all, we did hit the top grossing charts not once, but twice. However, we learned quickly that the “long-tail” of app sales begins about 36 hours after the app is released. A day or two more if it’s a well received app, less if not. Long-tail here refers to the fact that most of the sales happen very VERY quickly right at the begging and then you quickly fall to a long period of low but steady sales volume. Here’s what that looks like in a chart.
You can clearly see the v1 launch in Apr 2011, v2 in Apr 2012, and v3 barely even registers in Aug 2013. And if you add all those numbers up, they look like this:
Undoubtedly, that is a lot of money and most iOS developers would gladly disassemble themselves for such a haul. But consider that that total is spread over four years and has to pay contractors, advertising, cloud services, software licenses, and hardware devices it actually doesn’t go that far. After all expenses the developers took home under $20,000 a year before taxes. A nice sum to be sure, but far short of a full-time wage especially considering we were working 40+ hours/week routinely.
Photosmith’s pricing has probably been the most controversial aspect of the app. Over and over we were told to drop the price and make it up in volume. We did experiment with that a few times and always found that the support load of higher volume overwhelmed any positive revenue changes. The raw-photo-import-and-sync market we were in just had too many complicated variables that required high quality support to go with a mass-market pricing strategy. Over time in the app we focused more and more on doing things that would reduce the need for support and Mike spent many months creating the most complete support Knowledge Base of just about any app out there but we never got the goal of zero-support-required that we wanted to obtain –and in fact would have to attain– in order to go with a low-tier pricing strategy.
One interesting thing that we did find testing pricing is that Photosmith has an unexpected demand curve and was actually more successful at high price points. The following chart does not show the associated support costs but they were directly correlated with volume and thus dropped as we increased price so our net revenues were far higher at $20 than they were at $10.
Usage and Analytics
Now that all the ugly money discussion is out of the way let’s have some fun spelunking into our anonymous usage statistics. *Most of these charts are grabbed from the last 100,000 events so there is definitely some recency bias involved, take it or leave it, that’s just what our analytics toolkit limits us to.
Lightroom, unsurprisingly, is the clear winner. However, lots of effort went into the Eye-Fi and FTP import modules too and it looks like they’ve been put to very good use. FileXchange existed only a very short time before Apple introduced PhotoKit and broke it.
Again, unsurprisingly, JPG is the clear winner. However, Canon having such a big lead over Nikon is surprising since they’re nearly equal in the market. Also a surprise is Olympus representing so well. Mike theorizes it’s because Photosmith was well liked in those camera brand’s representative forums and particularly in the case of Olympus, Photosmith supported ORF better than most other apps.
Here’s where the burn really starts to set in. The export modules took a huge amount of development work and testing and created more support tickets per user than anything except sync. Yet, when compared to each other (below) and especially to other app functions (not shown) they represent just a tiny fraction of what users did in Photosmith. Less than 3% of users ever exported at all. And remember, for the majority of Photosmith’s lifetime, Apple’s share panel and photo extensions didn’t even exist yet.
One of the things we love about technology is how fast it moves. Everything changes so fast. It’s also one of the things we hate. So we decided to take a personal stand. We continued iPad 1 support right up through the very end. There’s a few places were doing so cost us a lot of time but considering that those iPad 1 users were also the very first buyers of Photosmith, we felt like we owed them a debt. I’m very happy to report that even still, four years later, early generations of iPad and iOS are still strongly represented in our most recent usages statistics (again, the most recent 100,000 events).
There’s lot of other interesting details in the analytics but they don’t lend themselves as well to quick charts. Plus, I fear I’ve prattled on for far too long already anyway. If you’d really like to know more –especially if you’re in the photograph app market– reach out and we’ll help you up with what we can.
Since we changed analytics providers twice during the lifetime of the app cumulative numbers are hard to come by but we can still get a pretty good idea.
- 30,000,000 photos imported
- 10,500,000 Lightroom Syncs
- Average import contains ~50 photos
- Over 500 sessions imported more than 3,000 images at once
- 580,000 photos imported via Eye-Fi
- 7,000 photos exported (wow that’s small)
So what are we most proud of?
We set out to build an app that made it easy for photographers to import their pictures while on the road and get a head start on triaging the work before they get home. In a lot of ways, we were successful at that. There are still several rough areas in the workflow –most of them we can’t control but some we still could– but overall, it’s a useful tool and many people have written in to tell us it’s helped them.
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May 25, 2014
This is first of what we hope to make a regular feature here on our blog. We field many really interesting queries from users and potential users of Photosmith – sharing these questions and answers will only benefit the wider Photosmith community (and might even cut down on the number of duplicate questions we receive )
To get in touch with our Support Team*, please visit http://support.photosmithapp.com – we’re currently a little behind on our queue, and responses are taking a bit longer than usual while we give each email individual attention.
Lenin Ramirez-Sanchez sent a number of really great questions this week – here are his questions and my answers — Mike Wren
If I use the Camera Connection Kit, can I import directly into Photosmith (i.e bypassing Camera Roll)? I know when [Photosmith] was just released this could not be done, just wondering if that’s still the case?
When importing photos to iPad using the Camera Connection Kit (CCK), the only possible destination is the Camera Roll – This is an Apple-imposed limitation. This means that you can not import photos directly from an SD memory card or wired using a USB cable directly into Photosmith’s catalog.
We have very strong opinions about this annoying restriction, which is why we encourage the use of Eye-Fi wireless cards or FTP as the preferred method of getting photos directly into Photosmith’s catalog (bypassing Camera Roll) in an iPad first (field triage) workflow. Until Apple modifies its policies regarding access to the 30 pin/lightening port on the bottom of iPad, our hands are tied. Third-party apps like Photosmith currently cannot communicate with the USB dock connector. This is also why sync with Lightroom must occur through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and not wired via USB.
[My] camera is Wi-Fi capable and it’s also compatible with Eye-Fi (per their support page). Do I need to buy Eye-Fi cards to take advantage of the direct connectivity your App has with that technology or just by been in the same Wi-Fi network as the camera is enough for Photosmith to download the images directly from the camera?
Photosmith currently supports wireless photo import using two methods: Eye-Fi (Mobi and X2) Wi-Fi enabled SDHC memory cards, and FTP-based wireless camera adapters, like the Canon WFT-E4 and Nikon WT-4A. We are looking into adding support for other wireless import options in future versions of Photosmith – watch our blog for progress updates.
Any recommended set up / configuration options for the Sony A7?
I haven’t personally used the Sony A7, and can’t vouch for how well it integrates with Photosmith. That said, it appears there shouldn’t be any “gotchas” when using it with Photosmith in an iPad first workflow.
When looking for potential compatibility issues, the first thing I check is if it plays nice with Eye-Fi, and it appears the Sony A7 has no known issues, according to Eye-Fi. In that case, I suggest purchasing a 32GB Eye-Fi card, and configuring the A7 to write camera RAW+JPG files to the card. The Mobi will only send the JPG wirelessly to Photosmith, which is perfect. Keyword tag, star rate, and add other metadata to the JPG’s in Photosmith, then when you get back to your Mac or PC with Lightroom, import the camera raw files from the Eye-Fi card into Lightroom via a card reader as you normally would.
Then, when you first sync Photosmith with Lightroom, all your metadata added in Photosmith will transfer to the corresponding camera raw photos in Lightroom. We call this a proxy JPG workflow, and it works amazingly well – there’s no manual intervention required to match the camera raw files in Lightroom to the proxy JPG’s in Photosmith!
Proxy JPG workflow can really save a lot of time – In my day job as an event photographer, I use proxy JPG as a means of making quick picks and rejects and adding star ratings while still in the field. This is called field triage. If I have an extended period of downtime, I may even get to work on keyword tagging or caption writing. This works well because when I get back to the studio, after importing the camera raws into Lightroom, a quick sync will transfer all my metadata from Photosmith to Lightroom. With most or all of the culling, star rating, and keywording out of the way, I can then jump right into Develop module in Lightroom and get to work.
Photosmith allows me to leverage what would otherwise be downtime in the field, getting the culling and tagging out of the way, so I can immediately start Develop module work in Lightroom, when I’m back in the studio on a much larger color-calibrated screen.
Is the app going to be updated for iOS any time soon?. If so, what’s the estimated release date/month?
Yes, we’re working on an iOS7 interface overhaul, along with a bunch of other surprises that we’re ridiculously excited about. Our plans requires a lot of extra effort from everyone on our team – and is part of the reason why we’re a little bit behind on answering support tickets the past few months. As for estimated release timeline – the next version will be released when it’s ready… and not a moment sooner. We are in a very unique position of not having to answer to shareholders or investors, and aren’t under artificial pressure to ship new versions on specific dates.
Are there plans to support Sandisk Wireless Media Connect drives?. They are the perfect accessory for an iPad + Photosmith workflow.
As we recently discovered from Sandisk, they’ve chosen to not allow developers read/write access to their hardware.
However, it’s actually worse than that – Like Eye-Fi’s native iOS app, SanDisk’s iOS app changes the camera-generated filename when saving photos from the Sandisk Wireless Media Connect to iPad’s Camera Roll. This means photos will have a completely different filename than the one assigned by the camera. This makes the Sandisk Wireless Media Connect drive completely unsuitable for Photosmith’s proxy JPG workflow.
Until Sandisk decides to allow open access for reading and writing to their Wireless Media Connect dive, or they fix their app to not clobber filenames, there’s unfortunately not a lot we can do.
April 10, 2014
Earlier this week, Adobe announced the immediate availability of their long awaited Lightroom mobile, the Adobe-branded solution for synchronizing and working with Lightroom photos on iPad. We have received an amazing number of tweets, emails and calls from folks asking our feelings on this, and what this will mean for the future of our app, Photosmith for iPad.
First and foremost, we’re very excited! Not only does this legitimize iPad as a platform for mobile photography, it signals an unequivocal emphasis on touch-based photography tools from one of the largest software companies on the planet. This is nothing but fantastic news for the mobile photographer, and we feel the future is very bright!
We first launched Photosmith in 2011 to fill the gap between Lightroom on desktop/laptop devices and the portability of iPad, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. We’ve discovered which digital photography workflows are best suited to the mobile environment, and what users want and expect from a mobile, touch-based photography tablet app.
While Adobe’s Lightroom mobile for iPad is a similar product to Photosmith, in that they both offer photo synchronization with Lightroom on Mac or PC, they each have very different features and functions. If you look at it feature-by-feature, there’s actually very little overlap.
Photosmith is still the only option for editing and synchronizing keywords between your Lightroom catalog and iPad. Our users have spoken loud and clear, and tablet-based keyword editing and metadata sync is something that’s very important. Organizing photos while away from your desk is a big deal, and can be a real time saver.
Another workflow in which Photosmith really shines is when performing field triage of photos – something we call an iPad-first workflow. This is when you import photos right to your iPad before getting back to your Lightroom catalog, allowing you to immediate tag and organize what you just shot. Photosmith also provides best-in-class native camera raw rendering right in our app, something very few apps can do. In fact, our support of camera raw rendering is far beyond what iOS allows, with almost 500 different camera models, like the previously unsupported raw formats from FujiFilm and Leica cameras.
But most importantly, we’ve learned that users don’t want to pay for another cloud-based service. Photosmith remains the only subscription-free solution for syncing your photos and metadata between Lightroom and iPad. We’re also the only app that allows local Lightroom sync – with Photosmith, your private photos and metadata always remain on your devices, and are never stored on a server somewhere on the public Internet. With Photosmith, there’s no middle-man, no storage of your stuff in the cloud, and an Internet connection is never required for syncing your Lightroom photos with iPad.
We are the first to admit that Photosmith isn’t always the best solution for every digital photography workflow, and have made every effort to highlight that point throughout our documentation. Anyone that has had a conversation with our support or engineering teams know that we often suggest alternative products which might be a better fit for your specific workflow and use case. Lightroom mobile is a very capable 1.0 release and they did a great job with syncing Develop module editing. However, for IPTC metadata editing and local Lightroom sync with no ongoing service charges, Photosmith is still the only game in town.
All of us at Photosmith are photographers, and we view choice in digital asset management tools as a wonderful thing! We created, and continue to maintain Photosmith as the digital photography organizational tool we want to use, to help bridge the gaps that continue to exist in the mobile photography workflow puzzle. For field triage in particular, Photosmith really shines.
So where does this leave Photosmith? Believe it or not, since Adobe’s Lightroom mobile launch, our sales are actually up. A rising tide raises all ships, and we very much view other mobile photography apps as partners, not competitors. With PhotoCopy, we’ve helped establish a standard by which iOS apps can communicate with each other, and work together. It’s a very exciting time to be a photographer, and we’re very motivated to continue our work to make photo organization easier. From your couch or coffee shop, right on your iPad.