On February 10th, 2013, Adobe Photoshop turned 20. For the past 20 years, Photoshop has been part of every web designer and photographer’s life. For every version and major feature listed, it’s hard not to think, “How did Photoshop not have that tool.” And for every part of Photoshop we love, Adobe is constantly designing new features. So in celebrating Photoshop’s illustrious 20 year history, let’s examine the past, present, and future of Adobe’s most celebrated tool.
Photoshop is a city. A city that is centuries old and layered with the past. Photoshop serves the people and the people serve Photoshop; people develop and change it to suit their needs and purposes. And Photoshop has constantly done that, becoming something totally new and unexpected every release. It’s more than just a professional image editing application; it’s the only professional image editing application. It’s the city, that to do your job, you have to live in. Yet with every new update, problems still persist and you ask yourself:
Adobe Principal Scientist Russell Williams (the chief architect of Photoshop) put it aptly in answering these questions. “People always say ‘Take out the stuff I don’t use, and put all the stuff I do use right on top in the user interface.’ And the problem with that? Everybody has a different idea on what should be on top.” People are constantly discovering ways to use Photoshop that Adobe never even envisioned. “People take an artist toolbox and use the tools in totally bizarre ways,” he says. Adobe can’t tell people how to use Photoshop; in many ways it’s its own living, breathing organism that is constantly changing. And that’s what’s so hard about establishing just what Photoshop is: it has to be something for everybody.Photoshop was never supposed to be this complicated.
Thomas Knoll first developed Photoshop in 1987. It ran on an 8 Mhz Mac, with a 2 MB requirement of RAM, and it was shipped in a single floppy disk. Yet it was a marvel of modern technology even back then. Its first trick was to display print-resolution images on a standard Mac. Previously, a high-resolution image required expensive computers loaded with RAM. Yet what Knoll did was completely revolutionary: he figured out how to change these images – by treating them as mathematical constructs. This fundamental thinking developed the tool, the wand-selection tool, and even plug-in filters. Photoshop CS6 now could open a 10-15MB image (the size of a then-modern hard drive) and go to work. Filters would take 10 minutes to run, saving was a hassle, and a single undo made every decision precious but Knoll had successfully set the foundation for what Photoshop could and would become.
Nevertheless, Photoshop is still tied down to it’s past, despite its constant improvement and advances. What started as a simple photo editing tool quickly turned into a graphical design powerhouse and what started as a side project for Thomas Knoll turned into the image editing tool for graphic designers. And deep within the catacombs of Photoshop lies a little framework known as “MacApp”. It’s what remains from the very first version of Photoshop, a fragment of its foundation. MacApp originally allowed Photoshop to communicate with the operating system, which was then Mac OS 6.0.3. MacApp was eventually abandoned by Apple but is still a part of Adobe’s framework.
Unfortunately, MacApp is still a force to contend with and an unwanted legacy of Photoshop 1.0. As recent as the Mac Cocoa conversion, millions of the original program’s code had to be changed, simply because of MacApp. This is another part of Russell’s job: accommodating those quirky bits of code left over from previous versions while developing Photoshop for the future.
At this point, you must ask yourself, “Why doesn’t Adobe just rework Photoshop?” Besides lines of codes from decades past, Photoshop consistently falls one feature short of collapse. Because despite GPU acceleration, new versions of Photoshop have constantly pushed the boundaries and capabilities of modern computers and operating systems, so they always seem a bit slower than their younger, more refined apps. So why wouldn’t a rework of Photoshop make it feel more 2013 than 1990? It won’t.
In an interview with THE VERGE, Knoll said that “If you wanted to do everything Photoshop does, you’d have to do it in the same way Photoshop does.” A rewrite would likely take a decade, and, thanks to the error-prone nature of building complex software, it might never be completed. Just look at Apple’s recent rewrites. Final Cut X, an all-new look on the revered Final Cut Pro, outraged many video-editing professionals – to the point where they are now jumping ship to rival software. It’s never really about what a new app can do. It’s about how it does it. Just look at the recent iTunes revamp, or the recent Facebook changes. These new designs are undoubtedly nice, and perhaps even better than the previous versions. Yet it’s different and different is a mortal sin for professionals whose livelihood depends on using a product the same way today as 10 years ago. For example, Adobe’s move to include more features of “it just works” where a simple click of a button can perform a once complex task that required professional work. This, as a result, begins to beg the question of the future need of “professionals” if the software are able to replace them.
The “Tech Transfer” team. These are the guys in charge of pulling features from the lab into the final product. If you’re looking for someone to thank for Content Aware Fill, these are your guys. Ditto, if you’re complaining about Photoshop bloat. And everything flows through the lead manager, Jeff Chien.
He understands the complaints of slowness. “We could make Photoshop incredibly fast…but in the future we want to do things smarter,” he explained. “Making the Clone Tool faster and running at the fraction of the memory, when you have plenty, isn’t going to do anybody good.” And that’s what so great about Photoshop. It can never seem to say “no” to a feature: which is why it’s so powerful.
Jeff wants Photoshop to be user-aware- artificial AI. That’s the holy grail of Photoshop. Rather than seeing “objects” as “blob of color one” or “blob of color two”, Photoshop would see “objects” the way users see it, like “tree” or “chair”. Then the user could do as he or she please with the object; with Photoshop filling in the details of what might have been behind that object. Depending on your perspective, this might seem fantastic or terrifying.
So what lies the future for Photoshop? Only time will tell. Yet from new changes from cloud storage to user awareness, Photoshop is certainly moving towards the future. More importantly, it’s not for anybody. It’s for everybody.