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Adobe coaxing Photoshop power to iPad

An onstage demo reveals new maturity for Adobe's Image editing on the iPad. It's good timing, given how many new software rivals are bubbling up in the tablet market.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
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Adobe Systems, with a Photoshop-like demo on an iPad yesterday, is beginning to show more of the fruits of its tablet-computing labor. And it's a good thing, too, because there's no guarantee the company's power in desktop software will extend to tablets.

It's no secret Adobe Systems is working on graphics programs for tablets--indeed, John Nack, the leader of Adobe's tablet work, has been soliciting advice about exactly what to do since last year and Adobe has demonstrated other Photoshop features on Android and iPad tablets. But the fact that the company is shedding more of its reticence now about the projects could indicate Adobe is more willing to raise expectations in anticipation of an actual project.

At the Photoshop World conference, John Loiacono, leader of Adobe's Photoshop and other Creative Suite software, showed some of what his company has in mind. Specifically, he demonstrated an iPad-flavored incarnation of a flagship Photoshop feature, layers, that arrived on personal computers with Photoshop 3.0 in 1994.

Loiacono was quick to call it just "technology we're looking at," and to not commit to shipping anything, but it's clear Adobe is getting closer to offering something besides the somewhat stripped-down Photoshop Express application for phones and tablets. Photography Bay caught video of Loiacono's demo.

Clearly Adobe is moving from concept toward reality. What's also clear is that a huge number of upstarts also are staking claims in the new tablet realm, where new arrivals have a chance to unseat entrenched players from the PC era.

At the casual end of the spectrum, programs such as Hipstamatic, FX Photo Studio, Instagram, and Picplz let people play with their photos and share them, becoming embedded into people's online lives. For those with a more serious creative bent, Zen Brush, Brushes, Inspire Pro, and Inkpad provide a wealth of imaging options. And for the even more serious, applications like LRpad and Photosmith have the potential to step into serious photographers' lives.

Photosmith is designed to let photographers sort, label, check focus, and add keywords before importing images to Lightroom.
Photosmith is designed to let photographers sort, label, check focus, and add keywords before importing images to Lightroom. Photosmith

It's not clear yet how far tablets will encroach onto the turf of personal computers, especially when it comes to heavy-duty computing jobs, but it is clear that tablets are finding a prominent place in many people's electronic lives and that their hardware is becoming less feeble.

Layers, which require a lot more memory and processing power, are a staple of photo editing.

They can be used to merge elements of different photos or to adjust the degree to which effects are applied across an image. Parts of one layer can be made selectively transparent, revealing the contents of the layer below, an approach that enables sophisticated and adjustable compositing.

Loiacono showed just that in his demonstration, using, of course, a touch interface. He also showed an image being rotated and scaled quickly with multitouch, though it wasn't clear how large the original image was.

"This is just a concept about how do we take technologies we found in Lightroom and Photoshop and actually extend those to these devices as they become more important to your workflows," he said.

It's good to see Adobe producing something that could bring some of the company's image-editing clout to a mobile-device world world more characterized by quick-effect apps such as Hipstamatic and Picplz. Full-fledged Photoshop or Lightroom is an impossibility today, given the constraints on the processing, memory, and storage of current tablets and phones.

But these devices are growing up, and a host of software companies are finding something useful to do with them even if they're not an eight-core workstation with a dozen gigs of RAM.

One example is LRpad, a $10 app that essentially offloads some Lightroom controls to an iPad's touch controls. It connects over Wi-Fi to a PC that's the brains of the operation.

LRpad, connected to a PC running by Wi-Fi, acts as an auxiliary control panel for Adobe Lightroom.
LRpad, connected to a PC running by Wi-Fi, acts as an auxiliary control panel for Adobe Lightroom. LRpad

Another example of innovation around Adobe is Photosmith, in beta testing now. With it, photographers can do some of the Lightroom photo management chores before they bring photos into a PC.

"Photographers can take their pictures in the field, download them to the iPad, and use Photosmith to review their images, add to custom collections, filter by certain criteria, assign metadata, and filter by that data. Photosmith also fills a critical gap in the photographer's current mobile workflow, allowing full 1:1 zoom of even 21-megapixel raw images," the developers say of the application.

Taking photos an extra round trip through a tablet sounds a bit like extra work to me, even with Apple's Camera Connection Kit and the arrival of CompactFlash and SD memory card readers for the iPad, but perhaps it need not be such a hassle. Tethering--in which photos are sent directly to a computer rather than to a memory card--is getting more sophisticated as computers get integrated into photography work patterns. And Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are becoming more common in devices, as well. With this sort of technology, a tablet could perhaps become an automatic way station rather than a side trip.

One profound change, of course, is that tablets use a touch screen. That can provide artists a more direct connection to their work, but it also misses the precision of something like a relatively expensive screen-enabled Wacom Cintiq tablet that uses a pen. Even there, though, options exist, such as Ten One Design's Pogo Sketch stylus to improve tablet precision beyond the finger-painting level.

In addition, for travelers for whom weight is a problem, a tablet could be a lighter but still capable alternative to a laptop for screening photos--not to mention the fact that it's more useful for e-mail, apps, and Web use than a portable hard drive that merely stores your photos until you get to a computer.

I'm expecting Adobe to bring more than one product to this market--not a more grown-up alternative to Photoshop Express, but more. What exactly the company will come up with remains to be seen, but Nack has hinted there's work afoot.

One person earlier this year remarked of Photosmith, "It's tough not to ask why this wasn't something Adobe created."

Nack responded, "Indeed, but the time is not yet right to answer." With all the challengers to Adobe's stronghold, it looks to me like now would be a good time to supply that answer.