COACM: Plug In, Tune Out
Remember when we used to see all sorts of interesting plugins get released for Photoshop? Fact is, the whole idea of plugins first gained traction in the amazing industry that sprung up around Photoshop and the idea that third-party companies could significantly extend the usefulness of Photoshop with small chunks of code that delivered specialized functionality. Few who were around at the time could forget the sometimes innovative, but often gratuitously silly interfaces of the Kai Krause plugin products (http://www.dizteq.com/images/kpt3interface.jpg), and even Photoshop co-creator John Knoll got in on the action with his cool little CyberMesh plug for turning grayscale images into extruded 3D geometries. At one point, there were so many commercial plugins, someone even came up with a plugin manager plugin, but to survey this market in recent years is to conclude that either developers stopped actually making money selling Photoshop plugins, or users were simply satisfied -- perhaps even overwhelmed -- by all the built-in tools and filters, to even have time to learn anything not already inside of the program.
While both of those scenarios are likely true to some degree, I also suspect that some developers found themselves in a bit of a dirty game with Adobe, similar to the one that musical software developers faced when Apple decided to lower the price of Logic Studio to $500, and load it up with an amazing array of synthesizers and effects processors, almost totally eliminating the actual "need" for third-party plugins, and making the task of successfully marketing a DAW suite truly daunting in the Mac world. I suspect that some were concerned that a decent plugin idea would either result in being acquired by Adobe (best case scenario), or worse, similar functionality would show up in a Photoshop update, instantly rendering a third-party alternative (which was there first) irrelevant.
Case in point: with the addition of the Blur Gallery in Photoshop CS6, OnOne Software's excellent FocalPoint 2 plugin (http://www.ononesoftware.com/products/suite/focalpoint/?ind) is no longer a viable product, and to my eye, the PS6 implementation of Tilt-Shift looks a heck of a lot like a similar tool in Snapseed. Sure, there are only so many ways of implementing a specific feature, but if you were a commercial developer with limited resources, would you want to create a tool that complemented a primary deployment platform, but which might be mirrored in a future version of said platform, by a company with deep pockets and a bottomless budget for legal maneuvers? I'd probably sooner opt for the standalone app route.
Now, I'm not trying to claim that all Photoshop plugin development is DOA -- there are some truly great developers like NIK Software, Alien Skin Software, Digital Anarchy and other small developers who continue to create very cool, useful extensions for Photoshop. But take a look at the Adobe listing for third-party Photoshop developers, and you'll find a list of products that includes many offerings that haven't been updated in some time, and others which are beyond niche, they're really more like kitsch. It really does seem like the cool plugin developers have largely bailed out of Photoshop, and instead, are focusing their best efforts on the other advanced Adobe graphics offering known as After Effects -- you know, the program with the actual advanced technology, the one that implemented nondestructive filter layers 15 years ago, in After Effects 4.0. [Editor's note -- please see http://www.adobe.com/uk/motion/columns/biedny/]
I'm thinking about all this as I put the Photoshop CS6 beta to the test, and while there are some good additions to this already excellent program, it's really starting to feel like Adobe is running out of ideas of how to make Photoshop more useful for working professionals. I think we're seeing what happens when companies lose a meaningful historical perspective of their own products. I remember when the first version of the aforementioned Kai's Power Tools implemented a Find Edges filter with an image inverse applied immediately after running the Sobel edge detection routine, which is pretty much the opposite of what you actually want -- Find Edges is about making masks for the high-frequency edges of an image, so white lines on a black background are what most of us are looking for; inverting this to make black lines on a white background is just kind of goofy. I also remember that Adobe toyed around with the idea of changing the default behavior of Find Edges to mirror KPT, which made me crazy at the time, and as memory serves, I wasn't the only one who implored Adobe not to change the way Find Edges worked.
I've also seen a company release a commercial plugin that essentially duplicates the long-lost technique involving a grayscale image as a custom mezzo screen (saved as a pattern), in conjunction with the often-ignored Bitmap image mode and the custom halftone option, something doable with Photoshop 1.0. Humans ignore history at their own peril.
New features are great when they are indeed new, and not just variations of existing functions, slight tweaks to the way things work, or long-desired changes that are more cosmetic than practical, or poorly implemented. Take the new options for making the overall Photoshop interface darker, which basically makes it look more like Lightroom, but in essence, duplicates a feature long enjoyed by After Effects users, except that the Photoshop version is simply not as good: you have 4 predefined brightness levels in Photoshop CS6, while After Effects presents a brightness slider, allowing you to dial in the exact shade you want. Did the Photoshop team think that only four choices were enough? Why even highlight this addition as a major new feature, without doing it right? And the "new" video editing tools are cute, but this instead of adding rotospline capabilities, something advanced users really need in conjunction with Photoshop-style painting tools, and for which there are few available solutions (I know I'm not the only one who misses Puffin Design's Commotion software, the product of the mind of the uniquely gifted Scott Squires).
Instead, we have some basic video editing stuff that is a limited subset of the goodness found in Premiere Elements, which offers far more productive features than the limited toolset found in Photoshop CS6, including some that are crucial for photographers looking to get their feet wet with video editing, like automatic cuts to the beat of an audio track. I can't think of a single Photoshop user I've taught or met over the years who felt that basic video editing was a hole that needed filling in the Photoshop pro sandbox.
What we really need are refinements of existing core functionality in the program, not new, shiny chrome bumpers that are of little interest to the people using Photoshop on a daily basis to try and make a living. How about Shadows and Highlights color correction tool implemented as an Adjustment Layer? Curves is really starting to look long in the tooth, and the fact that Photoshop lost the Lighting Effects filter in the transition to 64 bit and has no replacement yet, is just inexcusable, aside from the fact that the last implementation left much to be desired. I've famously complained about the Apply Image and Calculations dialogs, unchanged for many years, and still of use to a large number of dedicated users. Folks have long enjoyed the cool Alpha tool in Keynote, featuring an interactive, dynamic region extender that has long been lacking in the last-century approach seen in the Grow command. And this is in a presentation program! Come on, Adobe, what gives? It's not about just growing the base, there are many of us who have been proud Photoshoppers for a couple of decades, we've invested serious time in this tool, and have a clue about what remains to be done.
At this point in time, Adobe should bite the bullet and take Photoshop into the future in a genuinely meaningful way, and here's the general strategy I think would work out for everyone: make the core of the program available for $99. Include basic layer, color correction and editing options, and make the areas of power-user functionality available as in-app purchases. Want video editing? Add $99. Need more pro-level color correction tools? $99. Can't live without advanced typographic controls? $99. Offer basic camera RAW free, but $99 for the full-featured version. Want to do 3D inside of Photoshop? $99 (but please add some actual modeling tools, and gobos). Itching to ditch Corel Painter and use Photoshop as an advanced paintbox, with extensive natural media tools? $99. This would go a long way in placating legitimate concerns about the steep Photoshop buy-in price -- up to $1000 for the Extended version. It would also allow many more to be able to learn how to use the program to the fullest extent possible, removing some of the massive overwhelm that many users encounter in trying to wrap their brains around the behemoth feature set.
Sure, it's a bit more work than implementing a subscription model, but I would bet the farm that making Photoshop more affordable in this fashion would likely find a warmer reception from dedicated Photoshop professionals than a monthly fee/program lockout. People won't spend the time learning their way around Photoshop, only to rent it; I don't know who came up with this strategy, but it seems a bit divorced from the way working professionals live their technological lives. If my Internet service goes down, do I need to stress about booting Photoshop to do some work? I sure hope not.
What do you think, Creative COW readers? Let's try to help Adobe make the best tool for our actual needs. I welcome your feedback.