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Photoshop may be 25 years old, but it still manages to stay fresh

While Adobe is well known for its many different graphics applications, perhaps none is more famous than Photoshop. For creatives, medical professionals, and scientists, it’s the go-to digital imaging program. To the general public, it’s the software you use to superimpose a person’s head onto another’s body. In fact, the word Photoshop has become a verb that’s now part of our vernacular – even for those who have never used it. For Adobe, it’s the flagship that’s tied to the rest of its ecosystem of design programs. In fact, Photoshop as a brand may even be bigger than Adobe itself. This week, Adobe not only celebrates Photoshop’s 25th year, but also the anniversary of one of computing’s most important milestones. Among the celebratory activities to take place this year, the company is launching a new advertising campaign during Academy Awards on February 22, 2015 (Photoshop has been used in the film industry, starting with The Abyss in 1999, and in recent films like Avatar, Gone Girl, and How to Train Your Dragon 2), and is inviting young artists to participate in a Adobe Behance competition to showcase their Photoshop masterpieces.

The first boxed version of Photoshop. Inside were floppy disks and documentation.

The first boxed version of Photoshop. Inside were floppy disks and documentation.

Adobe Systems Inc.

So, how did this venerable computing program get to where it is today? As the story goes, Photoshop traces its roots to two brothers, Thomas and John Knoll. While studying at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, Thomas, as a hobby, was writing a program that could display a grayscale image on a black-and-white monitor. Collaborating with John, who was then working in special effects at Industrial Light and Magic, they added tools and features that turned it into a digital image-processing program. Called Display, the Knoll brothers pitched it to Adobe in 1988, showing the software’s editing features using an image called “Jennifer in Paradise” (Jennifer in the photo was John’s future wife); Adobe acquired the program in 1989, renamed it Photoshop, and released version 1.0 in 1990. Adobe thought it would sell 500 copies a month – not really anticipating it to be a moneymaker. Of course, Photoshop would not only go on to become lucrative, but it would become a de facto program used by anyone who needs photo-editing tools.

When Photoshop launched for Macintosh, the features included the Magic Wand selection tool, color correction, and level adjustments. As the program evolved, Layers was introduced in version 3, a revolutionary feature that allows users to edit and “make mistakes” while leaving the original image intact. Windows compatibility was then added, which opened the program to more users. But it wasn’t just photographers who embraced Photoshop.

Zorana Gee, Photoshop's senior product manager, has been with the team since 2000. Like her colleagues, few leave the team.

Zorana Gee, Photoshop’s senior product manager, has been with the team since 2000. Like her colleagues, few leave the team because the “product has been so amazing.”

Adobe Systems Inc.

“We have so many ranges of people and industry types that use our products, from photographers to designers, down to astronomy and NASA, medical industries, forensics,” says Zorana Gee, senior product manager for Photoshop. Gee came to Adobe not as a photographer or designer, but with a science background and using Photoshop to create research publications. “Basically, you name it, any industry that has to deal with digital imagery has used Photoshop in some way. Even to this day, for me, I am still continually shocked and surprised by how people use Photoshop.”

As the years went on, Photoshop continued to add features that accommodated the demands of users’ every-changing workflows, such as the ability to save to Web, as more users were moving toward Web production. With every introduction of new digital cameras, Photoshop would be updated to support them. Recently, Photoshop added support for 3D printing and tools like smarter content selection, camera shake reduction, Focus Mask, and Perspective Warp. Looking ahead, it’s adapting to mobile devices. Interestingly, the most popular tools used today are the same tools that were introduced in the beginning, Gee says. And, if you’re looking for a way to slim down a person in an image or crop a head and put it onto another person’s body, Photoshop is still the way to go.

Digital image manipulation is commonplace today, but we take for granted how complex and time consuming the process was when things were analog. “In the photo retouching world, a lot of the fundamental techniques we do in Photoshop, you were able to do in the darkroom – dodging, burning, even some basic swapping heads and putting on another image, and things like that,” Gee says. “People spent hours, if not weeks and months, figuring those things out – we just made it faster and easier to do.” Which puts into perspective why Photoshop was so revolutionary in the early 1990s.

While the Photoshop team has grown since the Knoll brothers (Thomas is still with Adobe), surprisingly, it’s relatively small at around 50 people – given Photoshop’s scope. Gee, who has been on the Photoshop team since 2000, says many of her colleagues, including Adobe’s creative director, Russell Brown, have been working on Photoshop since the beginning (click here to watch the first four Photoshop pioneers – the Knoll brothers, Brown, and Steve Gutman – talk about the beginnings, five years ago). For Gee, she has stayed with the team because the “product has been so amazing,” she says.

“We don’t have a lot of movement,” Gee adds. “We have a lot of developers who have been here since the beginning, and they continue to stay here for many of the same reasons.”

Russell Brown, Adobe creative director, and attendees of Adobe's 1990 Photoshop Invitational.

Russell Brown, Adobe creative director, showing the new software to attendees at Adobe’s 1990 Photoshop Invitational. Adobe didn’t have high expectations for Photoshop at the beginning, thinking it’d only sell 500 copies a month.

Doug Menuez/Stanford University Libraries/Contour by Getty

Photoshop isn’t – and was never – the only photo-editing option, but it continues to retain users, due in part to new enhancements, familiarity, and, as Gee puts it, Photoshop’s early start in the game. With users dedicating so much time to learn it (the program has a steep learning curve) and the resources to run it (it’s a power-hungry application), it’s understandable why users would stick with it. But a big reason why users stay with Photoshop is that it has every tool one needs to design whatever it is he or she wants to make.”

“It’s a blessing and a curse, the fact that Photoshop does so many things,” Gee says. “But it’s a toolbox that has every tool that you need.”

“Any industry that has to deal with digital imagery has used Photoshop in some way.”

However, as creatives are increasingly adopting mobile devices in their workflow and using smartphone cameras to capture images for publication, Adobe has had to adapt, creating various apps (many bearing the Photoshop name, but are different from the main program) and opening a software development kit (SDK) to third-party app developers. Adobe has also launched a lower-price Photoshop subscription (Adobe has moved its programs to a cloud-based subscription model, and no longer sells as boxed versions) in an effort to attract a new group of users, as there are plenty of photo-editing tools – many of them free or built into operating systems, desktop software, and mobile apps – available to them. It’s engineering challenges like these, Gee says, that Photoshop will work on in the next few years.

“We are taking advantage of the many new opportunities presented to us,” Gee says. “With multiple devices, we are thinking about Photoshop in a different way, in being able to access the technology from whatever device it is that you are on.

“Going forward, it’s really about proliferating the brand and the technology and the workflow in the platform that makes sense for our customers,” Gee adds. “Aside from the 25 years, our engineers are really excited about the cloud [because] it’s getting them to rethink Photoshop.”

But for an application that has seen major transitions in its 25 years – analog to digital photography, print to Web publishing, desktop to mobile computing – adaptation may be Photoshop’s biggest strength.