Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Photoshop At 20

Insiders at Adobe discuss the evolution of software that has become as vital to photography as a lens

For photographers today, it seems the word “Photoshop” is the very definition of ubiquity. Here’s a piece of software that in 20 years has gone from a clever tool a handful of photographers were playing with to a powerful application that’s arguably the focal point of the entire digital photography industry. Granted, in the digital world, 20 years probably equates to several lifetimes, but that doesn’t take anything away from the incredible success and technological advancement Photoshop has achieved in that time. The term “Photoshop” has become a verb (much to the chagrin of Adobe’s trademark lawyers, I’m sure), and Photoshop version numbers have become a badge of honor. Photoshop experts don’t introduce themselves by saying how long they’ve been working in the industry, but rather by saying something like, “I’ve been using Photoshop since version 3.0.”

Born of humble beginnings, what would become Photoshop started out as a program called Display, which Thomas Knoll wrote in 1987 while he was a PhD student at the University of Michigan. The software simply displayed grayscale images on a monochrome monitor, but Thomas’ brother, John Knoll, working at famed motion-picture visual-effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), saw the potential. John recommended that Thomas use Display as the basis of a full-fledged image-editing program. The result was rechristened ImagePro and distributed with a slide scanner by manufacturer Barneyscan. Apparently, only around 200 copies were ever distributed.

Soon after, the software was demonstrated to Adobe, which ultimately licensed the distribution rights in September 1988. In February 1990, Photoshop 1.0 was released. What we think of today as core features of Photoshop weren’t there yet, however. There were no image or adjustment layers, no palettes, no color management and no support for RAW captures. Of course, the first commercially available digital cameras were just starting to become available, so the lack of RAW support could hardly be missed. Since that first release, roughly every two years there has been a new major release of Photoshop, with each new version bringing us closer to the powerhouse that now helps photographers produce many of today’s most incredible photographic images.

A Fun Ride
Many people have paid close attention to Photoshop from the very beginning. One of those people is Russell Brown, the Senior Creative Director (and employee number 38), who has been at Adobe for longer than Photoshop has been at Adobe. In fact, he’s quick to point out that as of January 1, 2010, he has served 25 years with the company and now is entitled to take a sabbatical at anytime.

Brown isn’t the type to launch into a pedantic history of product cycles and feature updates, focusing instead on adding a bit of color to the story. In talking about some of the early days of Photoshop development, he explains, “There was something in the early days about putting secret bits of code [referred to in the software world as Easter eggs] into early versions of Photoshop. If you held certain keys and clicked certain things, you’d get little things. For example, Merlin would appear.”

One Easter egg Brown recalls, in particular, caused something of a bug in the application: The word “Bass-O-Matic” would appear randomly on the menu. This caused a quality engineer to collide with a programmer. As Brown describes it, the situation “was funny at the time, but it exploded into the wrong thing.” Obviously, at some point such Easter eggs can cause trouble or confusion for customers, so their inclusion has been much more restrained in recent releases. Of course, that hasn’t prevented a certain amount of “adventure” along the way.


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