As has been widely reported, Google recently made its suite of Nik software, formerly a $149 purchase, a free download. Which is both good and bad. The good news? A collection of applications which includes the very capable Silver Efex Pro 2 for mono conversion is now available at no cost. The bad? Just about everything else.
It’s not the financial aspect which worries me. Yes, I bought Silver Efex from Nik at what seemed like a high price around five years ago before Google acquired it and then offered the entire suite at a much more reasonable cost. Google did the decent thing and gave me all the other applications as a free upgrade, but Silver Efex has always been the standout. There are a few things in Color Efex, Tonal Contrast in particular, which are useful but they have never become a core part of my photography the way Silver Efex has. I even use it for some of my colour work, but that’s the subject of a post for another day. Google is offering to refund anyone who bought the Nik suite during this year and as a long term user I have no complaints about not getting value. I am not sure I would be so sanguine if I had bought just before Google’s deadline.
Google purchased Nik because it wanted Snapseed, which it has always offered free and runs on mobile devices. The acquisition of the Nik suite which is designed for desktop or laptop computers was purely incidental. Put simply, it does not fit in with Google’s other products and services. Indeed, in its announcement the company says that producing photo editing tools for mobile platforms will be its priority.
So far Google has not responded to questions about its intentions for future support. It looks certain that there will be no further enhancements, the last being around two years ago, but no one knows what will happen if something breaks. The cause could be anything, a change made by a third party or a bug in the Nik code. If the former, how soon would the third party give it attention if only a small subset of users is affected? If the latter, Google might not have the resources or the will to fix it. Admittedly it could make the code open source and let the community take over, but that has other implications.
Which brings me to my other concern for the developers of rival products. How do they compete against free? A problem which would be compounded by open source, especially if new functions start to be added. Unlike much other open source software which is developed from scratch, the Nik software represents a solid basis from which to start. More likely Google is setting the Nik software on the downward path to gradual extinction. I just hope that when it occurs there will be at least as good a choice of alternative products as we have today.
My advice is to enjoy the free software, but with an uncertain future it might not be wise to become totally reliant on it. I know that I shall start looking at the alternatives so that Silver Efex is not my only option.