December 28, 2001, 12:00 AM

When it comes to managing digital images, the web creates the problem—then solves it

E-commerce has created a huge demand for image management systems—and new technology is filling it.

Consumer products manufacturers are happy to provide pictures of their products to the retailers who sell them. After all, that’s one of the ways retailers let consumers know they have the products for sale. And who better than the manufacturer itself will make sure retailers use the best quality photos of each product?

But sometimes providing those images can be overwhelming. Family-owned Tasco Worldwide, a manufacturer of recreational and sport optical gear, for instance, receives 10,000 requests for product images every year from dealers, mass retailers, catalogers and media outlets. Communications manager Deena Forrest literally spent her entire day tracking down the requested photos in the art department, burning CD images, and shipping the discs. “It was time consuming and expensive,” she says.

Miramar, Fla.-based Tasco, which manufactures the well known telescope brand Celestron, wanted a solution that took its marketing department out of the photo fulfillment business, while making sure partners got the images they needed when they needed them. It got what it was looking for in November when it licensed a digital asset management system from MediaBin Inc. Tasco now uploads its original high-resolution product images onto the MediaBin servers and authorizes its business partners to access them through the web. Partners looking for a telescope, binocular or any other product image can instantly find images for whatever format they need, from web-based thumbnails all the way to high-resolution images for use on glossy paper stock.

“Spending two minutes giving users the password and telling them how to download the image is a lot easier than spending the whole day finding images and sending them out,” Forrest says. “My job efficiency has skyrocketed.”

From images to assets

Product images today are more than just images. With the investment and labor required to create and manage them across multiple formats and selling channels, images and other digitized content are corporate assets, as surely as cash in the bank or the real estate that supports a bricks-and-mortar store.

That’s a realization that’s come only lately to most retailers. As Forrest’s experience shows, many retailers and manufacturers face major headaches in simply locating and identifying the properties of what may be thousands of images that have accumulated on servers. And after finding the images, there remains the problem of reformatting them for different media uses when needed. Conducted manually, that’s a labor-intensive process that’s not readily scalable.

Today with the web, the problem is even worse. Not only do retailers need a whole new set of images to present product on the web, they also need multiple versions of the same image. A thumbnail in a search result is different from the picture that appears on the main product page. Sites that allow customers to click the picture for a larger view need yet another image for that view. Then there are the 29% of apparel sites that allow customers to change the color of a piece clothing-also requiring new images. “When you get on the web which may need multiple versions of the same image, you have a problem,” says Nancy Tubb, senior analyst with the Boston-based Delphi Group technology consultants. “For the longest time, companies needed images for print only as advertising and sales collateral. There weren’t nearly the number of outlets needing images that there are now.”

A number of technology developers have stepped up to the plate with comprehensive digital asset management systems that help companies operating on the web and in other channels manage the full spectrum of content, ranging from text documents to product images to rich media visuals such as video. “Ideally, asset management systems will access content from anywhere, store any type of content and deliver it to any medium,” says Joshua Duhl, an analyst with IDC.

With enormous requirements of scale, behemoth manufacturers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. were among the first to get images and content into automated digital management systems. Those uses were primarily for storage. But the technology has evolved until now the systems allow owners of the images to manage them as well. “Originally, digital asset management had to do with archiving,” says Chris Lynn, vice president of marketing for MediaBin. “Second generation systems are more generalist within the companies that use them, oriented to distribution of the assets rather than just archiving them.”

Variety of backgrounds

Vendors of automated image management systems present retailers with a wide array of solutions as vendors try to capitalize on their roots in publishing, advertising, technology and other industries. Some asset management systems serve as the infrastructure where all the company’s digital content, including images, resides. Others provide the customer-facing applications that let shoppers generate derivative images of an original on demand: switching the color of a red sweater to green, for example.

Some web retailers focus image management efforts on this piece as a stand-alone application. “Retailers like Saks and Sharper Image are taking the high resolution images from their catalog and re-purposing them for other onscreen uses” requiring different file formats, says Tim Bigoness of Equilibrium Technologies Inc., provider of automated imaging technology.

Some providers of comprehensive digital asset management systems partner with technology vendors who specialize in high-volume dynamic imaging to present clients with a bundled solution that handles both functions. Those tend to operate corporate firewalls and be linked to a database. Geared to the collection, storage and sharing of content, “asset management systems are part of the infrastructure,” Lynn says.

When it comes to output, some systems have more flexibility than others to deliver images on demand in multiple formats. Because that capability is critical to getting the most use out of product images, it’s made image server providers into a growing subset of the content management marketplace. Perhaps half- dozen technology companies have entered this space in the past two years, says Duhl.

Just another data set

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