Dec 14, 2006

Closeup with John Nack


John Nack, senior product manager for Adobe Photoshop, photo by George Jardine.

John, the last time we interviewed you it was just before the announcement of Photoshop CS2 in April of 2005. Here we are in December of 2006 and it seems Adobe has decided to give Photoshop users a bit of an X-mas present, a public beta preview of Photoshop CS3. Whose idea was it to do a public beta of CS3? What made Adobe want to do this, playing Santa?

Heh heh–I like the idea of playing Santa, though you’ve got us beaten on the beard front. ;-)

The story is pretty simple: We’ve wanted to deliver native performance to Mac users moving to the new Intel-based systems, and this beta lets us get there. We’re also making some good performance improvements on all systems, and although we’re excited to be showing off some new features, the big motivator was performance and compatibility.

Aside from Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Adobe has never done a public beta of a major application before, correct?

Although we’ve been doing some public pre-releases of various sorts (e.g. the Flash 9 alpha added ActionScript 3 support this summer), we’ve never done anything quite like this. That is, we’ve never taken one of our flagship applications and distributed it with a big new feature set. But extraordinary times call for extraordinary efforts, and the Intel transition is the kind of thing that comes around maybe once a decade.

Did the success of the Lightroom public preview influence this decision?

Absolutely. Now, I should make the point that the purposes of the Lightroom beta & the Photoshop beta are different. Lightroom is a brand-new application, and before we started charging for it, we wanted to take the time to gather lots of real-world feedback. It was much more of a blank slate that we could change rapidly in response to photographers’ comments.

In the case of Photoshop, it’s a much more mature app that’s much closer to shipping. So, by all means we’re eager to hear what customers think of it, but we don’t have time between now and shipping to make big changes based on that feedback.

How has the fostered new development? Has the Labs “sandbox” been beneficial to Adobe, its developers and users?

Oh, absolutely! Other companies build a whole culture and mystique around their secrecy. That’s a game we could never win, so why even try? Let’s be open and engaged with the community.

I know product management and the engineers have been really working hard to to a Universal Binary version of Photoshop for MacIntel, just how hard was it? Why did it take so long?

Well, I’m the world’s worst coder, so I’ll leave it to others to talk about the details here. I can tell you that our applications are pretty unique in terms of scope, support for legacy plug-ins, etc., and so developing them puts a lot of pressure on a development environment. Apple has worked closely with our teams to make things work as smoothly as possible, and I think the the communication here has made Xcode a better tool. We certainly appreciate the Xcode team’s great efforts.

As for timing, you can imagine we’ve been chomping at the bit to get the code out there, but we didn’t want to release something that wouldn’t run well. We also wanted to have our SDK squared away enough that plug-in developers could start updating their tools in earnest, before CS3 hits the streets for real.

You decided to do a public beta of both the Mac and Windows at the same time (which I suspect is a very good idea), describe the current CS3 beta in terms of completeness and usability. Should users “test it” or “use it”? Is the feature set finished? Is the UI finished?

Well, a beta is inherently incomplete. Use it for any length of time and you will encounter bugs. (We like to say that if it were all working perfectly, we’d be shipping it today.) That said, we wouldn’t release anything that we though would toast users’ hard drives, etc. If and when you do find bugs, please let us know via the user forum on Adobe Labs.

As for the UI, it’s pretty well baked. Of course, we could always have one or two surprises up our sleeves (“I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’”), but what’s there is pretty complete.

The beta of Photoshop CS3 comes with a new version of Bridge (Adobe Bridge 2.0) as well as a new version of Camera Raw, how will they change between the beta version and the final shipping version?

Well, ACR is one of those places where we might have a few rabbits yet in the hat, and I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises (or mention something that might not make the cut!). Same goes for Bridge.

Bridge 2 looks a lot different than Bridge 1.0, what were the main goals of the new Bridge?

Speed is the #1 priority. Obviously being native on Intel-based Macs is a huge help, but we wanted to speed up the application on all systems. In many cases the speed of Bridge 1.0 suffered in comparison to other apps because we were erring too much on the side of quality. For example, an app like Photo Mechanic can preview raw files quickly because it never looks at the actual raw data–just the embedded JPEG previews in files. Bridge was always looking at the raw data, which is inherently slower. So in Bridge CS3 we’ve made some code changes as well as added preferences that let you control the process. By default Bridge now doesn’t look at the raw data until you tell it to do so (i.e. by clicking an image). That lets thumbnailing be much quicker.

We also wanted to build a Bridge that would balance the diverse needs of many Adobe customers. With Lightroom we have the luxury of focusing purely on digital photography. With Bridge we think we’ve built a great digital photography tool, but it’s also now more adept at handling a wide range of formats–everything from PDF to Flash video. The new Stacks feature is a great example of something that can benefit diverse audiences: it’s quite useful for photography (grouping related images), but film and video folks can use it to organize sequences of frames & even scrub through them. Anyway, it’s an interesting balancing act, but one that’s a lot of fun.

We’re looking forward to hearing what people think of Bridge CS3, and we’ve set up a dedicated forum for discussing it on the Labs site.

Aside from the new features of Photoshop CS3, one really striking aspect of CS3 is the new user interface. Some people think it was inspired by AfterEffect 7, was it? What were the design goals for the new UI?

The goal, in a nutshell, was to improve usability and consistency across the Adobe product lines. As it happens, a number of our UI designers began an intensive investigation several years ago, looking at what worked well across various Adobe tools (e.g. side-stashing palettes in InDesign) as well as Macromedia Studio and others. The timing of the Macromedia integration therefore worked out beautifully, as we were already on track to build an interface that offered the best of their tools plus Adobe’s.

As for video, there are some important differences in how the products that are used, and these translate into differences in the UIs. In video you’re working on a single project at a time, so the palettes (now officially called “panels”) should move and resize accordingly, whereas in Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. you’re often using multiple files at once. Therefore the interfaces in DV-land are consistent with one another, and the Creative Suite apps are being made consistent, but you’ll see some difference between the two.

In any case, one could write a dissertation about the details, and I’ll leave the longer explanation to the folks who worked more directly on that project. Look for a blog entry with more details soon.

There are the obvious advantages of the UB version for MacIntel, what other performance/compatibility/stability issues is CS3 intended to address? Will CS3 be optimized for Windows Vista when it ships in Jan 07 and OS X Leopard when it ships “next spring”?

It’s like they say: “May you live in interesting times…” This release cycle has been madness: taking on an enormous merger, moving to Xcode/Intel-based Macs… and oh yeah, how about two major new operating systems, due at almost exactly the same time you’re planning to ship? The good thing, though, is that we’ve been working closely with both Apple and Microsoft for the duration of the development cycle, and we expect CS3 to run beautifully on the updated OSes. (And if it doesn’t, I’m sure we’ll hear about it during the beta process.)

So, with the release of the beta of CS3, you’re also starting CS3 beta forums on, what do you hope people will offer in terms of feedback and catching bugs? It’s intended as a user-to-user forum but some Adobe people will be watching, right?

We’re up for anything in terms of feedback (rants, raves, bugs, etc.), though as I say, this isn’t like the Lightroom beta where we’ll have a chance to make many changes for this release based on beta feedback.

Last spring (2006) in an interview with Forbes magazine Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen stated that the new Creative Suite CS3 would ship in Q2, 2007. That is unusual to actually state a release date so specifically, correct? Rather “Un-Adobe” of Adobe to actually state an actual target date…so, is CS3 still on target for Q2, 2007?

We remain on target to ship in Spring 2007. Releasing the Photoshop beta now lets us deliver native performance many months sooner than we could have done otherwise.

Now that the merger of Adobe and Macromedia has been completed, how has this “new Adobe” changed? Is the, the Lightroom preview and now Photoshop preview an indication that Adobe has changed its culture?

I think so. I think the cultures of the companies have blended really nicely–much better than my inner skeptic let me hope for, actually. I keep thinking back to a designer who was interviewed when the deal was first announced. He said (paraphrasing), “Adobe will make Macromedia grow up, but Macromedia will take Adobe out clubbing.” Like I say, we can’t win a game of “Who’s More Secretive,” so let’s be brash & get our stuff out there. I think the Macromedia DNA is a great help here.

One of the places I visit every day (to steal from it, of course) is your Adobe blog, do you enjoy blogging? You seem to find a lot of interesting stories related to Photoshop, where do you look, what are your sources? (I’ll steal them of course)

The stealing is definitely mutual! I really do enjoy blogging as it allows direct, immediate interaction with the community. Adobe is a big company, and there are a lot of cooks in the marketing kitchen. That often leaves me thinking, “Just spit it out!!”–which I then attempt to do.

What do the “suits” think about Adobe employees blogging for all the word to see?

I think the suits think it’s great. :-) The blogging policy is much like the one at Sun & largely boils down to “Just use your head.”

For all the work you and the engineers put into Photoshop CS3, what are your favorite new features and which ones are you the most proud of?

I come from a Flash background, so I’m really pleased with a couple of sleepers we’ve been able to sneak in. You can now export high-res photos to the Web via Zoomify & display them via Flash (think “do-it-yourself Google Maps”). And scripters can use Flash SWFs as the front end to their scripts, which opens some crazy possibilities around Net connectedness (daily video tips inside PS, anyone?). And Bridge, too, is embedding the Flash player to do some things that are potentially even richer.

What did you want to do that you didn’t get to do (it’s ok to break your NDA, nobody’s really gonna read this, right?)

Ah–that’d take another whole interview! You know how Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine per cent perspiration”? We’ve got a *ton* of inspiration and grand designs on where to go from here; it’s the the whole 24-hours-in-a-day, real-artists-ship thing that means we have to be patient and work in chunks.

I will tell you, though, that I think Photoshop is going to keep surprising people, and there are a lot of rabbits left in the ol’ hat. (If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t stick around, nor would the heavy hitters on the team.) Minds *will* be blown. :-)

Since CS2 was released, you’ve had some personal changes; you got married to your lovely wife Margot and recently bought a Victorian house (you got it, right?) and your title got bumped up a bit, correct? So, how’s life as a product manager of Photoshop now? Are you still having fun?

Heh–most definitely! I have to tell you, Jeff, I often feel like the luckiest guy in the world. My first two years at Adobe were kind of rough–working non-stop on a product (LiveMotion) released at the worst possible time, moving coast to coast three time for work, etc. On the day I was due to be laid off, I got a call (while in the Microsoft interview building!) inviting me to come talk about working on Photoshop. Three weeks later I had packed my whole life & driven from Boston to CA. And you know, I still wonder if maybe I fell asleep at the wheel, hooked a wheel into the gravel, am hurtling off a bridge, and am living all of this as one long, lovely hallucination.


John and his wife Margot at the Epson Print Academy in San Francisco.

So yeah, I’m having fun. :-) And I have to say, releasing this beta really makes me feel good about working at Adobe. It’s way, way too easy to get complacent, to slide into mediocrity and inaction. But you know, this whole thing has been a great gut-check for the company and the team, and I’m so pleased with how they’ve rallied. I’m very proud to play my little part in the whole effort.


John in his office at Adobe San Jose, from the PhotoshopNews feature story A Visit to Adobe

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