Adobe Photoshop celebrates big 2-0
What a long, layered trip it's been
Exactly 20 years ago today - Wednesday, February 24 - the first stable version of Adobe Photoshop was released into the wild. At 728 kilobytes, it fit on a single floppy disk.
To gain some insight into Photoshop's origins, we sat down with long-time Photoshop expert, author, and teacher David Biedny between his Photoshop sessions at the recent Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
Before Photoshop became Adobe Photoshop, when creators Tom and John Knoll were trying to find a home for it, Biedny was working with Mac developer SuperMac, then-publisher of PixelPaint, the first color paint app for the Apple Macintosh. "John Knoll had gone to [SuperMac] as one of the first companies that he wanted to pitch Photoshop to," Biedny told us, "and the director of product development there sent me a copy and said, 'What do you think of this?'
"The disk arrived in my office on a Friday afternoon in a FedEx envelope, and I put it on my Mac II...and by the time I came up for air it was Saturday morning."
That was the reaction many photo folks experienced - including your Reg reporter - when first encountering the app that not only changed photography forever, but which eventually gained the ultimate honor: it became a verb, a distinction reserved for such game-changers as Xerox and, yes, Google.
It was 20 years ago today...
Unfortunately for SuperMac - and fortunately for Adobe - the PixelPaint publishers turned Knoll down, reportedly because they didn't see how Photoshop could coexist with that color paint program.
But Photoshop wasn't the original image editor. "People will always remember Photoshop as the image editor, but the reality is that before Photoshop came on the scene, there had been a long history of graphics-editing software, really starting in many ways with a program called The Realist," Biedny told The Reg.
The developers of The Realist, Mark Zimmer and Tom Hedges, eventually sold the app to Letraset of FontStudio fame, which transformed it into ImageStudio, which morphed into ColorStudio - and there were things about ColorStudio, according to Biedny, that Photoshop was never able to replicate, such as a vector-based layer that sat on top of the bitmap that could be selectively rasterized and printed out with a fine-grained anti-aliasing.
While The Realist was going through its metamorphosis into ColorStudio, Photoshop's creators Thomas and John Knoll were developing the precursor to Photoshop - which was originally known as Display and then ImagePro after such tools as gamma correction were added.
The origin of the name Photoshop, according to Biedny, is obscure. "Tom said somebody - he hasn't mentioned who - gave him the name, but he hasn't really gone on the record to say who. And actually Adobe had done some work to try to figure out what to name it, but ended up going with the Photoshop name because at that point it already, kind of covertly, had recognition."
The Photoshop name took a left turn when scanner manufacturer Barneyscan licensed the app (version 0.87) in 1989 to bundle with their slide scanners, dubbing it Barneyscan XP. The deal was short-lived, with only around 200 copies shipped.
But that small seeding was important in one major way - one that explained how the Photoshop name had "covertly" gained recognition: the copy of Barneyscan XP/Photoshop that was included with the company's slide scanners wasn't copy-protected, and pirated copies soon began illegally wending their way around the graphics community.
The proverbial cat was out of the proverbial bag - but Photoshop had already been making its mark not in the graphics community, but among filmmakers.
Into The Abyss
The Knoll brothers brought different skills to Photoshop's development, and John's day job greatly influenced its early direction - and success. Tom, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was the coder and John, working at Industrial Light and Magic  in Marin County, California, was what Biedny called "the primary user."
The development process was - as was true with much software development in those far-away days - remarkably straightforward. "John was giving Tom a bunch of feedback on things that he wanted in order to make [Photoshop] a useful tool for his work at Industrial Light and Magic," the pioneering film-effects studio founded by George Lucas in 1975.
"If you look at Photoshop carefully with this historical perspective," Biedny suggests, "you start to understand things like the origins of the Calculations commands...which really came to Photoshop from its use in motion-picture productions."
John Knoll was using Photoshop at ILM to create composites. "And it was really all through the Calculations menu," explained Biedny. "Remember, this was when Photoshop had no Layers, which came out in version 3 and changed the way people used Photoshop for compositing."
Photoshop, by the way, wasn't the first graphics application that provided layers. "The groundbreaking software that did layers were ComicWorks and GraphicsWorks, which were developed by Macromedia and published by MindScape," Biedny reminded us.
"The Calculations stuff was really about using Photoshop to do blue screen, matte extraction, spill suppression, and compositing," he said. Photoshop's pre-Adobe movie-making chops were first demonstrated in James Cameron's 1989 The Abyss , and helped that movie win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Since its movie-making debut, Photoshop went on to take over the still-image world, crushing the competition as it added features from version to version. "By the virtue of the fact that it's been around for 20 years, Photoshop has simply outlived everything else," says Biedny.
Even a partial list of Photoshop's victims - some of which never even made it out of the development stage - is impressive: Macromedia xRes, Quark Exposure, Silicon Beach Digital Darkroom, Live Picture LivePix, Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith 's Altamira Composer. And on. And on.
And what old-timey Mac fanatic can forget the absurdly named Draw It Again, Sam?
And although Photoshop has its critics - and deserves some of their criticism for its at-times unwieldy UI, memory hunger, and type handling - Adobe isn't done with it yet. Take a peek, for example, at some leaked details available on YouTube of two new feature sets planned for the next version, Adobe Photoshop CS5: the PatchMatch  and Spot Healing and Fill  tools.
As it enters its third decade, Photoshop is Adobe's crown jewel - although some InDesign and Dreamweaver devotees might argue that point. Photoshop defines Adobe. "There was a time that when people thought of Adobe they thought of PostScript," Biedny told The Reg "Those days are long gone. I think when people think of Adobe now, they think of Photoshop. They think of Flash, too, especially in certain contexts, like 'Eh, goddamn Flash!'" ®