Why Photoshop for iPad Marks the End of the Desktop Computing Era

The real Photoshop for iPad exists. Adobe showed it yesterday and it looks like a solid digital darkroom. But, more importantly, it marks another step in the ongoing evolution that is changing the way humans interact with machines. One that, in fact, is putting back our human nature into computing.

The new Adobe app just confirms the paradigm shift that is already happening, another piece towards something that I predicted even before the iPad was announced: We are witnessing the beginning of a new computing era, after the punch cards, the mainframe, the command line PC and the mouse with its graphical user interface.

And, thankfully, there's no way to stop it.

Another myth shattered

When it came out, many said that the "Oversized iPhone" was doomed from the start. Others shrugged at its potential, dismissing it as "just a good way to consume" content, like web pages, books and Netflix movies. Many of those even said it wouldn't be good to play games. And almost everyone declared that it would never ever be a good content creation device: "There will never be Photoshop for iPad!"

It seems all of those people were wrong.

Adobe demonstrated Photoshop for iPad yesterday. Not a sub-product like Photoshop Express, but the real Photoshop, with a new skin. Sure, it doesn't have some of the advanced print and web publishing oriented features of the desktop behemoth. But it has everything you need, from layers compositing—including a 3D mode to show people how they work—to what appeared to be non-destructive adjust layers, levels, color controls, and all the features I use every day in the desktop Photoshop. From the little we have seen, the application was fast and smooth.

But Photoshop for iPad means more than awesome imaging tools running on a tablet. It's proof of where things are going. You don't even have to look at the long lines to buy the new iPad 2 and the exponential market growth. Just yesterday, the analysts at Gartner said tablets will hit $29.4 billion this year, up from $9.6 billion in 2010, just in hardware sales. We already knew for a fact that the iPad is a raging success that has prompted everyone else to make a tablet. You just have to observe how those millions of users are taking advantage of it now.

Creating is actually easier with the iPad

The surprising part is that the iPad hasn't been a success just because people love it to consume content or play amazing games like Sword and Sworcery. As it turns out, people also love to create stuff using it instead of their computers.

I prefer to write on the iPad using iA Writer—which is the best writing app for iPad out there—with a Bluetooth keyboard and saving to the cloud (other writers, like Joel Johnson, think along the same lines). I also prefer to draw using Autodesk Sketchbook than using my wireless Wacom Intuos and desktop Sketchbook, even while the Intuos has angle and pressure controls (I do, however, prefer to use a Wacom Cintiq tablet-display for precision).

From artists to doctors, people are using the iPad to work and create

In both cases, I find that I'm way more productive using the iPad instead of the computer. And I feel it's way more natural and the results are consistently better because of the process itself—the way I focus on my work, the way I handle the media itself.

I personally know plenty of other people who have been using other apps to make great things. Amateur and professional musicians are using iPads everywhere, every day, to create music and make a living. There's a ton of incredibly good music production software for composition, arranging, recording and live playing. The same happens in medicine, finances and all kinds of professions. Touch-computing is quickly becoming an integral part of those worlds. Many companies are even developing specialized tools in-house. Not because they are fancy, but because they are more effective for users and easier, cheaper to manage for IT. Normal people—not the ultra-nerds—love them as much as they hate computers.

Natural evolution

But, of all the fields out there, digital imaging and video are still out of the touch realm. This is mainly because of hardware constraints. With iMovie a few weeks ago and Photoshop now, that will change.

No, I'm not saying that professional desktop video and image editing on 30" displays is going to die in favor of folio-sized tablets. That will remain for a few years before getting replaced by new form factors designed around touch computing. Mac OS X Lion and the push for Magic Trackpad are two more indicators of that shift, happening from the top.

Many of you weren't there—I was, working my way through the 90s Apple pre-press revolution, the Silicon Graphics 3D animation workstations running PowerAnimator and Truevision PC-based video editing systems—but try to think about Photoshop for iPad as the first Photoshop on the first color Macintosh—except a hundred times more powerful than that. Back in the 90s, we started to produce entire magazines using hardware that, right now, would not have enough power to run the operating system inside your iPhone.

Like with the first Photoshop and first color Mac, or the first MIDI interface and music sequencing software—things will evolve quickly in the touch world too. People will start to push the boundaries—just like musicians and doctors are already doing now—and the software and hardware will grow with them. Photoshop for iPad in its current form and hardware will not be for those people and their titanic 2GB images with 300 layers. Eventually, however, the hardware and the program will get there.

In a couple of years, we will be able to easily handle huge images and videos in iOS and Android running on a variety of devices.

Why is this happening?

There are people who can't understand this evolution. Why normal people prefer tablets over full, powerful computers? Why should we change when, what we have now works just fine?

The problem is that it doesn't work just fine. Ask anyone who is not a nerd or a computer hobbyist and they will tell you that they hate them with the same passion they love their iPhones and iPads. The answer is in the complexity of the computer vs the simplicity of the touch interface. It's a subtle difference, but it's extremely powerful. And the result is that productivity has a lower cost on the latter than in the former.

To understand this, let's get back to the Photoshop example. Old schoolers remember how it was to manipulate photos in the lab, with your own hands and not a "cursor" and a "mouse." When the computers came, the traditionalist cried. Why would I want to use a computer when I can do the same thing in the lab? "It's too underpowered! The quality is not the same! It's much slower!" they cried (I know because I was one of the ones using the computer and had to endure their tirades).

Touch computers are giving back the tools to the masses because the masses no longer feel alienated by the tools

Then, as tools evolved, they discovered that they could be faster with the computer—all hail UNDO!—and the desktop publishing revolution took off, followed by the digital music and video revolutions. And this is where we are now: The complexity layer of computers became second nature in many people. Photoshop, like Final Cut Pro or After Effects, are no longer computer programs. They are so complex that they have become entire professions.

Today, professionals are using amazingly complex tools to create things, while consumers are using watered-down-but-still-stupidly-complex tools to create other things.

The fact is that computers and digital photography empowered us to create amazing things that weren't possible in the analog world. Buy by doing so, they took away the natural connection with the medium. It added a necessary-but-completely-alien layer of complexity to the creative process. They democratized access, but at the same time created new elites.

And that's the key to understand the success of touch computers. They are giving back the tools to the masses because the masses no longer feel alienated by the tools. The touch interface is making things natural and is making developers to simplify the access to their tools. And, by doing that, everyone will have more power than ever.

The end, the beginning

Adobe has realized all the above, which is why Photoshop may become the first solid digital darkroom on the iPad. They have the engineering resources to make it happen. I'm worried about gimmicky features like the 3D layer animation—which is a good way to explain consumers how layers work, but it will be useless after they get it. I'm also worried about all the menus that you can see in the demo. But it's too early to tell.

In any case, if Photoshop is not the digital darkroom that I always dreamed, I'm sure someone will come with one. For now, I'm happy to see that things are going in the right direction. For the first time in many years, since the first steps of the Mac, I'm excited about computers again.

They just happen to be computers that seem stolen from the desk of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.