Making the Right Decisions

"Too often, when a company stumbles, it’s not because it made a fundamentally bad decision. It’s because it made a decision that benefited itself rather than its customers and lacked the perspective to understand that customers don’t applaud when you lower your costs or the quality of your product."

Nope, not my words (though obviously I concur 100%). Those are the words of someone I worked with in the tech industry, Apple documenter and reviewer Jason Snell (he was also former editor of Macworld magazine, where I was a columnist). 

Business is all about tough balancing decisions, always. Obviously, you want to keep the business going, thus you look closely at what benefits the business. But what really keeps a business going long term is the customers buying the products and services that are supplied, and every time you start to forget that you'll be penalized for it. 

I've been dealing with a plethora of emails that all pertain in some way to whether a company or product is "in balance" or not. 

Take ON1's recent decision to produce plug-in versions of the parts of its suite (which can already operate as a plug-in of sorts). As I write this you can buy the full ON1 Photo RAW suite for US$100, or, say, the Portrait AI plug-in that's part of it for US$70 (ditto the other plug-ins). At first glance that looks like "oh, ON1 is giving you a choice." At second glance, it looks like a fool's bet to buy the plug-ins individually. 

Now personally, I'm not going to use ON1's full suite. I'm settled in as a Creative Cloud user (which I'll get to in a minute), but am curious as to whether the NoNoise AI plug-in might be better in some cases than the tools I'm currently using. But I'm put off by a couple of things: first there's the strange costing—ON1 seems to want me to pay a lot extra for the work they did to make it an independent plug-in—but the thing that disturbs me more is that ON1 has been all over the place when it comes to the suite/plug-in models. I'm not sure that I trust them not to drop the plug-in again, as they've done in the past (and as Skylum has done with products I like such as Intensify [at least Skylum kept the plug-in still available for those of us who bought it, and it still works with Photoshop 22.5, which I can't say for a lot of other plug-ins I've bought in the past]). 

Before getting back to the "converter wars" and "plug-in maneuvers," let me talk about Creative Cloud for a moment. The move from perpetual product to subscription model was indeed jarring. But note what Jason writes in his article about software subscriptions and what they do for the company. I agree with him that it's mostly a stabilizing force, and I think that Adobe should at this point be given credit for their success, both for themselves and for their customers. 

I went back and looked at what I was paying to regularly update Photoshop (or versions of the Creative Suite, or Lightroom, depending upon the time frame—I've been using Photoshop since version 1.0). Beginning with the formation of the Creative Suite I was paying about US$190/year on average to keep my software updated (of which I used three programs in the Suite). And having to jump through hoops to do that, as their installers were notorious for wanting to see every previous version's CD and activation number when you tried to update. 

Today, I'm far better off. I'm paying an average of US$100/year to keep Photoshop/Lightroom updated (I'm aggressive about looking for annual discounts), and don't have to jump through hoops each time an update appears. While in some years I get more features added and better performance enhancements, I've also been getting a regular feed of bug fixes and minor updates, as well as OS support updates. I much prefer the current situation than the previous one with Creative Suite. I'm sure Adobe prefers it, too, as they get a regular, known stream of income from me and others on which to base their ongoing product development.

Just to be clear, the problem I have with the current Adobe system is what happens on subscription termination: I believe Adobe could have done a better job of providing on-going capability for long-term subscribers that wanted to get off the wagon. Much of the problem appears to be that Adobe signed licensing agreements for modules or technologies and doesn't want anything to do with them if someone stopped paying.

Because of the subscription income, I'm pretty confident that Photoshop and Lightroom will continue to progress as products. They'll keep up with OS and hardware changes, they'll fix bugs, they'll add features. 

I'm less confident about a number of other software companies, because they all show the signs of "scramble for on-going revenue." Spin-outs, spin-ins, template sales, book sales, pre-selling updates, and much more. And in so doing, that makes it more likely that the company looks out for itself first, and then stumbles because they forgot to look out for the customer. 

Skylum’s recent announcement of Luminar Neo sure looks like one of these scrambles. Why didn’t Luminar just get updated? Why did we get Luminar AI and now Luminar Neo? My guess is that it’s a revenue need driving these “all new” products that keep replacing each other. (Or do they replace each other? I can’t tell from Luminar’s totally messed up marketing messages, and I don’t have the time to order, test, and form an opinion about whether they do replace each other or not.)

Similar problems happen in hardware, too. I've been vocal about how Nikon shot themselves in the foot with DX. Starting when the D3 appeared in 2007, DX lenses got short-shrift in the lineup. Other than the 16-80mm f/2.8-4E, 35mm f/1.8G, and 85mm f/3.5G macro, the rest of the DX lens lineup was kit lenses (and updates), superzooms (and updates), and low-end wide angle zooms. The D300, and then the D500, were starved for appropriate lenses, so why is it that Nikon can't understand why sales of the D#00 line went down?

Likewise, earlier I noted that the primary complaint from full frame Nikon mirrorless owners was also lenses, in particular the lack of telephoto beyond 200mm compared to competitor's systems. Customers are not applauding the fact that the 14-200mm lenses are mostly in stock. They're asking why nothing beyond the 200mm barrier exists. 

I'm also on record as saying that the most recent Nikon camera, the Zfc, doesn't solve a user problem (it introduces new user problems when the dials don't work because of some other setting you chose). But it solves a business problem for Nikon, apparently, as it has at least temporarily improved Nikon’s Japanese mirrorless sales volume.

The pandemic is putting an interesting side pressure on the camera companies. While demand has increased for product this year over last, producing product to meet that demand is tough to accomplish given all the parts shortages, shipping woes, and travel restrictions (many key suppliers and plants require quarantines to visit). The natural inclination in this situation is to protect the business first, but I worry that this is going to ultimately come back to haunt a few companies. 

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