Adobe's Future.

Adobe hasn't always been the fastest moving company. What was once pioneering, today often feels like layer upon layer of awkward legacy. But it's hard serving a dedicated professional user base, who rely on you to pay their bills. And for many tasks and pursuits, their Creative Suite is the only contender.

Paul Miller of The Verge wrote a great piece about its history:

It's like a world-class city — New York or London or Paris — centuries-old and layered thick with the past. They serve people, and people serve them, today’s denizens merely building upon what came before them.

Like our favorite cities, we tend to have a love-hate relationships with Adobe's key properties. I certainly have a love-hate relationship with Photoshop. And like cities, we only know a fraction of what each has to offer but make use of that fraction incessantly.

Recently, Adobe has been acting out some fairly radically strategy moves for a conservative, old-school Valley company. As well as betting on the cloud, they've been breaking out from their traditional suite by offering single or narrow-purpose apps like Color (formerly Kuler) or Shape. And they've been aggressively chasing mobile and tablet opportunities, which is what I want to look at in this post.

Let's start with their vision piece though – The Future of Adobe Applications:

Bold, beautifully produced, and it certainly garned excitement (which is probably 95% of what a video like this sets out to achieve). But as I watched it with some classmates, there were audible doubts and many a "whaaat?". The problem is that on inspection, many of the interaction ideas seem flawed in practice:

  • How do we know the woman painting the squid wants to manipulate the tentacles and not some other aspect of the composition?

  • The woman designing the 'Modern Style' layout uses three gestures on one object (one fingers drag, two finger drag and a pinch). There are many other actions she could be taking on the text, why do these ones happen and how would she achieve something different like scaling?

  • The guy working on the line art draws a circle, that bumps a line with physics. Why does it do that instead of overlaying, or underlaying, or cutting through the line?

  • The wet paint concept towards the end is fun but seems incredibly awkward to control in practice.

While a video like this doesn't need water-tight interaction solutions, for me this highlights some of the severe challenges presented by multi-touch displays.

One of the benefits of mouse + keyboard setups is that they decisively separate inputs from the display. Your eyes gaze at your work, while your hands make adjustments – making selections, tabbing through options, actioning shortcuts, nudging objects or values.

All of the above concerns could be reduced to one thing – recognizing intent. Unless a tablet interface is as good or better at recognizing intent than alternatives, it won't succeed for professional or any form of serious production work.

Interestingly, Adobe recently ventured into hardware for the first time to address some of these concerns. The Ink and Slide is a smart stylus and ruler setup. One of the nicer concepts is that to draw a line or trace an object via the ruler, the stylus can glide anywhere near it – it doesn't have to touch the ruler at all, which would be awkward. It's unnatural at first, but with use makes sense – and I'd argue overcomes a limitation with pen and paper drawing (which is that you can't quite see a line as you draw it against a ruler).

I think this is a pretty solid step from Adobe. Unfortunately it's very limited in scope – it supports the model of iPad as a sketch-making device, and feeds their cloud strategy (start on tablet, continue on desktop). With the limited screen size, and limited funtionality, this seems unlikely to replace any professional use of Illustrator. But what it does, it does well.