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Brace yourself for Adobe's Photoshop overhaul

Adobe Systems is laying the groundwork for a new Photoshop, giving the venerable image-editing software an interface that will adapt to the task at hand.

Adobe Systems wants to transform its flagship Photoshop software with an interface customized to the task at hand, a potentially radical revamp for software whose power today is hidden behind hundreds of menu options.

A new user interface will help Photoshop become "everything you need, nothing you don't," said Photoshop product manager John Nack, describing aspirations for the Photoshop overhaul on his blog Monday.

"We must make Photoshop dramatically more configurable," Nack said. "Presenting the same user experience to a photographer as we do to a radiologist, as to a Web designer, as to a prepress guy, is kind of absurd...With the power of customizability, we can present solutions via task-oriented workspaces," Nack said.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom offers a very task-specific interface, with editing modules changing according to broad categories of work. Adobe Systems

In comparison, Photoshop today is unwelcoming and unhelpful. "Today, if a user walks up to Photoshop and says, 'What do I do?' the app kind of shrugs, stubs out a cigarette, and says, 'I dunno--you tell me.' That's not real cool, and we can do better," Nack said.

A new Photoshop approach could let new users get started faster, help Adobe phase out old features, and energize Adobe programmers, he suggested. But such changes are fraught with peril, too: users can be confused or alienated, automated work processes can be broken, and some strong points can be weakened.

Photoshop's general-purpose value
One skeptic is Mark Rolston, chief creative officer for design consultancy Frog Design and a Photoshop user since before it was Photoshop 1.0. Photoshop fundamentally is an all-purpose tool, and tailoring it to be more task-specific could undermine that general usefulness, he said.

"Its generalized approach of being a toolset is the one thing that's made it popular...You can't be task-specific in a professional application like this," Rolston said.

But Nack said in an interview that Adobe sees the value of Photoshop as a general-purpose tool and won't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"Can Photoshop be totally general and totally focused at the same time? I think it can, through modularity and extensibility," Nack said.

Modularity raises another risk: multiple versions of Photoshop with different features. With its CS3 versions released this year, Adobe has opened that door by reserving some high-end or specialized abilities for the more expensive Extended edition.

There, too, though, Adobe is aware of possible problems. "There's a great deal of value in Photoshop being an industry standard," Nack said. "We therefore have to be careful about taking steps that would balkanize Photoshop...We don't want to get into a state of where people can't readily exchange files because they're using a dozen splintered versions--Photoshop for Web, Photoshop for Medical, Photoshop for Basket Weaving, etc."

Don't expect faster performance along with a cleaner design, though, Nack said. "I think the benefit will be more in users' perception than in saved clock cycles," he said.

The Lightroom lesson
One interface model Adobe no doubt factors into its deliberations is its new Photoshop Lightroom software released earlier this year. Lightroom, which is tailored specifically for editing, cataloging, presenting and printing raw images from higher-end digital cameras, has a very task-specific interface.

For example, Lightroom presents four major panes for different broad categories of work, and optional panels surrounding a central image present different options according to which mode the user selects. But Lightroom is a much more focused tool.

"Lightroom has shown that presenting just the tools needed at any moment can help users manage a complex workflow," Nack said. "With Photoshop, we'll find a way to offer that approach without losing the generality that has let people push the application in so many unexpected ways."

Another major experiment in user interface has been Microsoft's Office 2007, which added a "ribbon" that presents different options to the user according to what tasks are possible. Microsoft Word and the Office packages suffer a similar plight as Photoshop: although most users probably only use a tiny fraction of the software's features, the collective user base needs all of them.

Laying the groundwork
Nack knows that coaxing users into alignment with Adobe's vision will be one hard part of the change. But he--along with Photoshop programmers--has been working for months to make the change palatable.

Microsoft Office 2007 has a CNET Networks

In May 2006 came some cajoling. "If you could take away the pain that comes with a large and growing feature set, yet keep its benefits, would it cool the critics out?" he asked in a May 2006 posting. "We need your permission to take Photoshop in new directions, to add features that will blow people's heads clean off."

Then, a year ago, Nack grew a bit sterner, saying Photoshop users bear some responsibility for the software's sprawling state.

"We can add things, but we can never take them away. When we decided to stop maintaining the archaic, seldom-used 3D Transform filter, we made it optional content (not disabled, just moved). The tech support boards lit up with all kinds of complaints," he said.

Making Photoshop better for users also could make it a better project within Adobe, he indicated. "No one wants to work with--or work on--some shambling, bloated monster of a program."

Adobe coders have been working to make Photoshop to enable the modular, adaptable vision with features such as customizable menus and shortcuts, or workspaces that let users save particular configurations of editing palettes.

Also behind the scenes, Adobe has been working to make Photoshop more modular. Several modules--among them the type engine, 3D tools, the Camera Raw system, and the "Save for Web" process--only load into memory when called upon, he said.

"We're already making the code modular so that people aren't running what they don't need," Nack said. "Now we need to follow up at the user experience level, so that people don't have to wade through anything not geared towards the task at hand."