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How a procrastinator launched a new industry

You can thank Web designers for embracing Photoshop, software that lets anyone turn an OK photograph into something more.

Thomas Knoll The Image Maker
Knoll is an Adobe fellow who, with is brother John Knoll, created Adobe Photoshop.
Thomas Knoll
4 min read

Photoshop has grown up and adapted as the technology world has changed around us. From the rise of desktop publishing, to the dawn of the Internet, digital cameras and the explosion of mobile devices, Photoshop has always managed to stay relevant. Like CNET, Photoshop is also sharing a birthday this year, in our case a quarter of a century of innovation: We turned 25 in February. In many ways CNET and Photoshop have grown up together.

When I started writing the code for Photoshop, back in graduate school at the University of Michigan, it was mostly an excuse for me not to finish my PhD. I'd much rather code than write a paper. So, in retrospect, it was procrastination that spawned a technology icon -- I'm not sure that's a path I'd recommend for everyone. Nobody could have predicted Photoshop would influence fields as diverse as publishing, Web design, 3D printing, video games, medicine, movies and of course photography.

Photoshop was new, and it was a hard sell. As I wrote the software back in Michigan, my brother John Knoll was working the night shift as a camera operator at Industrial Light and Magic in California and would shop the prerelease software around Silicon Valley in his afternoon waking hours. It's kind of crazy when you think about it, but John was convinced we had a commercial product while I was still unsure. He was always the more commercially minded one, thankfully. Only Adobe bit on the idea, after 30 or so rejections. For that we have Russell Brown to thank, who -- in classic "evangelist" style -- sold this internally at Adobe. It helped that Adobe had engineers like John Warnock and Chuck Geshke in charge, and in many ways it's a classic scrappy underdog story (a story becoming less and less common in Silicon Valley these days, in my opinion). Russell is still with Adobe, evangelizing Photoshop in his own inimitable style, a legend within the Photoshop community. We agreed to a deal with Adobe, and Photoshop 1.0 was launched on February 19, 1990.

Enlarge Image
Photoshop 1.0 was designed to work on monochrome monitors that could display only black or white pixels. The splash screen reflects the reality of digital imaging at the time. Adobe Systems/Jeff Schewe

Strangely enough it wasn't photography that made Photoshop successful. Photography back in the predigital days is almost unrecognizable compared with the industry and art form it is today. Great photographers will forever prosper, because they have an eye for the shot and composition; this is the human element that no technology can reproduce. Technology helps, but it can't quite bridge that artistic divide. Back then the only way to get a photographic-quality output from Photoshop was to create four-color separations on film and take them to a printing press, and that single image would cost you $2,000 to print out.

However, inkjet printers and more-affordable scanners soon meant that photographers could get their images into Photoshop, where magic could happen, and then print them out exponentially cheaper. When the first digital cameras came out, Photoshop came to the fore because it was easier than ever to get images directly into the computer and work with them. The rest is history, as far as photography is concerned.

But back in the early 1990s what really made Photoshop take off was the Web. Web designers needed a way to process small images, compress them and still make them look good -- all driven by the limited bandwidth at the time. The ever-popular .GIF format emerged and Photoshop was one of the best tools for the job, making it essential across the Web and design worlds.

Photoshop has changed with the times, and I'm continually astonished by the mind-bending images produced with the program I wrote. What's even more humbling is how global it has become. Creative communities like Behance tell us where Photoshop is being used today. The top 10 cities for creating Photoshop projects are London, Sao Paulo, New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Paris, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago and Rio de Janeiro. I went to Tokyo recently to celebrate the anniversary of Photoshop, and the passion for the product among Japanese creatives was amazing to see, as was their work.

Today we're working hard to make Photoshop a mobile standard for digital imaging -- and we've even opened up some Photoshop magic to third-party developers through our Creative SDK (software development kit). And I'm concentrating my work on Adobe Camera Raw, an important feature for both Photoshop CC and Lightroom. Using raw file formats to capture as much data as possible, in every image, helps make features like our new "Dehaze" capability come alive. You need a lot of data to see through fog and bring out the background color and clarity.

Since its launch, CNET has diligently covered Photoshop and Adobe, highlighting what we've done right and holding us accountable. Here's to another 20 years of groundbreaking tech journalism.

Author photo courtesy of Thomas Knoll