Adventures in E-Commerce

National Geographic looks to IBM to market photo archives via digital asset management.

The National Geographic Society is using a new IBM software suite to bridge the divide between the artistic types who populate advertising agencies and publishing houses and its own bean counters who dont want to give away the organizations crown jewels.

The Washington-based organization is digitizing more than 10,000 of its hallmark images and making them available to corporate clients via a business-to-business Web site, using IBMs WebSphere Commerce for Digital Media.

National Geographic has been in the stock photography business for years. Officials there realized about two years ago, however, that to stay among the top three providers, theyd have to move at least part of their business to an e-commerce model, according to Maura Mulvihill, vice president of image collection.

Fully prepared to build a B2B site in-house from the ground up, Mulvihills group began looking around at various software vendors that could assist.

"We were prepared to build out our systems, and then our technical guy said IBM had a product to meet our needs," said Mulvihill.

In terms of functionality, Mulvihills group was looking for a fairly sophisticated search engine that could be intuitive as well as logical. At the same time, the group required a pricing algorithm that would allow it to price on a usage basis with additional parameters thrown in.

The cornerstone of the National Geographic site is WebSphere Commerce for Digital Media, software that allows customers to easily search a photo archive and purchase photos over the Internet. In addition, National Geographic is using IBMs Content Manager and DB2 database software as its repository.

"Whats required to sell images is a little different than selling, say, plumbing parts over the Web," said Mulvihill. "There is a different viewpoint. An art director will call and say, We want an image that says competitive edge or tranquility or family security, and conceptually, they have to be catalogued like that [with the ability] to be searched intuitively. It requires a degree of creativity and a browser mentality."

National Geographic developed some of its own technology that went into the site and into the IBM product. This included a pricing mechanism that allows for price based on usage and a feature that enables corporate buyers to acquire images with a purchase order rather than with a credit card.

As National Geographic moves toward offering low-resolution images for searching on its site (it currently offers only high-resolution images), it will look to employ additional software. It will install IBMs digital asset management system for publishing and the Armonk, N.Y., companys Networked Interactive Content access software for future digitization projects.

While the National Geographic site is an advance in the state of the art, it does not surmount all the problems associated with putting image storage and retrieval together with transactional components, said Stephen OGrady, an analyst for RedMonk LLC, a research company in Hollis, N.H.

"Whats missing is a digital rights management component. [National Geographics site] is a model based on trust," said OGrady. "They can get away with that because theyre dealing with businesses. But if they expand to a consumer-oriented model, it would be viewed significantly different."

Two components make digital rights management a particular challenge: the image size, which can be well in excess of 100MB, and the delivery of those images, which National Geographic stores as very-high-resolution TIFF files. To be delivered electronically, they have to be transformed to a lower image resolution.

"Coming from a couple hundred megs down to tens of megs, thats challenging," said OGrady. "But then interjecting into the process components that have transaction and commerce pieces—its not rocket science, but its one of the first packages that offers an out-of-the-box blended solution, geared towards image sales."

The complexity of the system comes from the access that happens between WebSphere Commerce Server and the HTTP server, which is really Apache re-branded as IBM, said Shawn Bleam, manager of e-business at National Geographics IS division.

"This is not WebSphere in a box; its a robust but pretty complicated kind of system to put together. There are lots of layers," Bleam said.

"The tool we dont have yet is a more simple interface for loading images and metadata," he added. "Thats probably the biggest [issue]. This is a lock for a function [likely to be included] within the next iteration [of IBMs Content Manager]."

Mulvihill looked at a lot of packages from companies—including some smaller companies that offered only part of the solution. She found IBM had the fullest package. IBM offered research capabilities, a search interface, pricing, delivery and a certain security of knowing the company "wont be here today, gone tomorrow," said Mulvihill.

None of the technology pieces that make up the IBM package are unique, but the combination of components does give it a unique spin, according to OGrady.

Initially, the site will house more than 10,000 photographs. National Geographic anticipates adding as many as 3,000 images each year.