Author Topic: Open letter regarding iPad development  (Read 50882 times)

Offline dennis

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Open letter regarding iPad development
« on: May 28, 2010, 04:07:24 PM »
May 28, 2010

To our customers,

This letter is addressed to the loyal customers of Camera Bits who have been pleading for us to create an "app" for the iPad from Apple (an "app" being something less than an "application" of course).  Many people think that an app for the iPad (or iPhone etc), even a simple one, is a "no brainer" and are disappointed that we haven't done this already.  We are kindly pestered by this daily and thank you for all of the attention and suggestions!  Well, it isn't that simple and I will explain why in only three pages.

Given the fact that Photo Mechanic is already widely used on laptops for field editing, I'm sure many photographers would prefer to carry less weight and see Photo Mechanic on a phone or tablet device such as the iPad.  Unfortunately, these devices currently aren't nearly as powerful as laptops or even NetBooks are.  For example the iPad only has 256 MB of RAM of which approximately one half (or 128 MB) is available to the running app.  Photo Mechanic running on a MacBook Pro can have as much as 4 GB of RAM available to it.  The amount of RAM is key since that is what software relies upon to do its work.  A 20 megapixel camera requires 60 MB of RAM, or about HALF of the RAM available to an iPad app, to hold a single uncompressed image in working memory.  Therefore it is clear that a full version of the Photo Mechanic "application" simply isn't possible for these devices.

Still, there are legitimate requests for a much slimmed-down utility for sending a handful of photos from the field via FTP or email, especially with the release of the glorified iPad (as if its particular features only now create an opportunity for such an app to exist).  And now with the iPad Camera Connection Kit (CCK) you would expect that it would be a slam-dunk to create a simple app that would browse photos on the flash card (hopefully supporting CF via a card reader, not just SD or tethered to the camera).  Then you could choose a photo, rename, add metadata and upload it, making a sweet little package for editing and transmitting photos in the field.  So we managed to get our hands on a few iPads and the CCKs to investigate.  Well like your parents probably told you, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't real and you should be suspicious of it.  Do your homework.  Unfortunately that is likely the case for the iPad and professional photography: not so sweet.

The hitch is due to the restrictions Apple places on third-party apps for the iPad (in the iPhone OS), namely that the apps don't have direct file access to the photos on the flash card, or any files outside of the app's "sandbox" for that matter.  On the iPad the photos must first be imported into the "photo library" using the built-in "Photos" app.  Then you could presumably switch to a third-party app to browse your photo library and do your work.  But right now it is impossible to create an app that works directly with the original photos (or movies etc) on a flash card.  Everything must start and go through the built-in "Photos" app.

Unfortunately if you have actually used the iPad Photos app you will know this isn't a very friendly process if you take a lot of photos, are on deadline, and need to choose and ingest only a few photos for timely posting.  Unless you know which photo you want, either because it is visually distinct or, say, the last one, good luck identifying the desired photo given the tiny thumbnails that the Photos app provides.  The Photos app doesn't even show the filenames, eliminating a possible workaround.  Of course if you have plenty of time and don't mind "ingesting" the entire card into the photo library (and you have enough space left on your iPad), then perhaps this is a workable scenario.  However the "image picker controller" provided to third-party apps to browse the photo library is worse than the Photos app – a double whammy of inconvenience.  More on that later.

Furthermore, if you are using compact flash (CF) cards as with most pro DSLR cameras, then connecting directly to the camera by USB appears to be the only reliable solution (and the only official solution according to Apple).  Unfortunately for pros it is much slower (and wasteful of battery power) to use the camera as a card reader, especially when compared to using a speedy reader such as via Firewire 800 on a Mac laptop for example.  We were able to connect a few different USB compact flash readers to the USB adapter of the CCK, but they only worked on some CF cards.  Other CF cards would produce an "accessory uses too much power" error message when the card was inserted into the same reader.  Also, when using the CCK part with the USB port and a cable to a camera or card reader, it is very easy to accidentally disconnect the CCK part from the iPad's dock connector since the CCK connector doesn't lock and it doesn't take much sideways force to break the connection (a simple mini-USB port is a much better connection).  I accidentally disconnected a link to my camera once and I had a difficult time getting Photos to recognize the camera again: it required a "restart" of the iPad.  Unless you are good with gaffers tape and can better fasten this connection, you will need to find a stable surface to do your ingesting using the USB port of the CCK.

If you are using SD format flash cards, supported by some recent or higher-end DSLR cameras, then the CCK Reader part is a more reliable physical connection.  If your camera only uses CF cards, you could get a SD to CF adapter such as the one from Jobo and see if that works to fool your CF camera into writing onto an SD card.  Then you could pull the SD card from the CF adapter and use the CCK SD Reader.  However, using a SD-CF adapter may adversely affect the write speed in the camera compared to a true CF card and therefore not be suitable for sports etc because it would limit the effective burst speed (hence burst depth).

So lets pretend you have all this worked out with a reliable connection to read your photos, and you can live with the Photos app as a gateway to select your photos and slowly "ingest" them into the iPad's photo library.  Now that your photos are on your iPad, here comes even more bad news.  When an app wants to access your photos, the only interface that the app can provide, the "image picker controller," is worse than the Photos app!  Not only is the interface itself poor, allowing you to only pick one photo at a time, but the end result is the final nail in the coffin.  Now that a photo is in YOUR library, you would think an app could read the photo in its original state – in other words, be able to treat the photo as a file that you can read and write to, just as if it were on the flash card you read it from.  But that is not the case since all you get from the "image picker" are the PIXELS at full resolution.  Hopefully this doesn't crash your app when loading a 20+ megapixel image with only 128MB of available RAM.  Worse still, this is like copying and pasting pixels into a new Photoshop document, just like the thieves do to steal your photos and strip all of your metadata.  In fact all of your Exif metadata from the camera, even the FILE NAME is gone: its only pixels.  Check this link if you don't believe us.


This isn't to say that your original photos are lost; they are still there in your iPad's photo library gobbling up space.  But as far as we can tell, you would need to connect to a real computer (MacOS or Windows) to sync with to retrieve your original photos off of the iPad, using iPhoto of course (an updated version no doubt).  Better to keep the original flash card and ingest everything later using Photo Mechanic and a fast card reader.

The bottom line is that the requirement to use the iPad Photos app to access your photos on a flash card, plus the connectivity issues, means the iPad is not something that a professional would likely tolerate.  And the inability for apps to read photos in their original form and location prevents developers from creating an app, even a simple one, that would be useful for professionals.  Forget about workflows used by large organizations that rely upon metadata such as the camera serial number.  From what we can surmise, the iPad is meant for the consumption of media, not the production of media content.  If Apple changes their mind or provides some other type of direct iPhone OS/SDK access to the photos on a card (or in a camera), then we will investigate further the possibility of a mobile app for the iPad.  At this point it is darn near impossible for us to provide what we would consider a useful app, something besides a gimmick or curiosity.  We're sorry.  Talk to Apple and let them know you can't justify buying their devices until they open up access for apps to read YOUR photos directly from YOUR flash card.  And tell Apple that you want another CCK part that allows a CF card to be inserted directly.

Apple should provide developers with the same access to flash cards that Apple's own built-in apps have.  It would be disappointing to rely only upon Apple's apps to do your work, especially given the current experience using the iPad Photos app.  And scarier still would be the possibility that an improved app from Camera Bits or anyone else could "duplicate existing functionality" and be summarily rejected from the iTunes store for sale (regardless of how many Pulitzer photographers would like to use it).

For now, we recommend that if you want to have a smaller, more lightweight field editing computer, that you get a NetBook and put the full Windows version of Photo Mechanic onto it (along with other software you may find useful).  You would have all the features of Photo Mechanic, plus a real keyboard, in a speedier and more reliable package just slightly bigger (but a lot less expensive) than an iPad.  Even if you are a diehard Mac user, Photo Mechanic works the same on a PC so it is not difficult to adapt to using a Windows OS host.

Going forward, as far as "smaller than netbook" mobile devices, Google's Android OS looks promising since it apparently doesn't have the same restrictive "sandbox" issues on accessing the flash card that the iPad (iPhone OS) has.  More importantly there will be many variations of tablets from several vendors offering a choice of features as needed for your job.  For example with the purpose of selecting photos and transmitting, I think a 5-inch display (800x480) would be sufficient.  The key feature you will need to look for is USB "host" support so that the device can talk to a camera or an attached card reader (CF or SD).

In summary, thank you again for considering Camera Bits as a solutions provider for your mobile photo workflow.  We will do our best to address your needs as much as possible with regards to an app for the iPad, but for now we suggest that you plan on using alternate, more open mobile solutions for professional apps.


Dennis Walker
Founder and President
Camera Bits, Inc.