How Adobe Is Reimagining Photoshop For The Mobile Era

The computer science behind Photoshop remains as remarkable as ever. But everything else about its new vision has changed.

How Adobe Is Reimagining Photoshop For The Mobile Era
Photoshop Fix’s face liquify feature, as it appeared in a prototype version [Photos: courtesy of Adobe]

For more than a quarter century, Adobe Photoshop has reflected a remarkably consistent vision. It’s leveraged the latest advances in computer science. It’s burst at the seams with potent features, most of which themselves have burst at the seams with options. And there’s been absolutely nothing about it that has been tailored to the needs of newbies or other people who might be daunted by its learning curve, which has been intimidating, if not downright terrifying.


All along, the product has dominated its category as thoroughly as any product in software history. Which means that for years, there wasn’t much reason for Adobe to mess with a winning formula. But in 2010, something happened that forced the company to reconsider just what Photoshop should be.

Color Nav, one of Adobe’s first Photoshop apps for the iPad

That something was Apple introducing the first iPad. It was instantly obvious that the tablet was a major new platform for software–and that the software it would run would have to depart from what came before on Windows PCs and Macs.

“The iPad 1 came out,” recalls Lance Lewis, a senior computer scientist who has been with the company for two decades. “In my my mind, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to transform the industry.’ I wanted to do everything I could to be part of mobile.’”

What wasn’t instantly obvious, however, was exactly how to translate Photoshop into an experience that made sense on the iPad and other mobile devices. In 2011, Adobe released three “Photoshop Touch” iPad apps–Eazel, Color Lava, and Nav–which were complements to Photoshop in its full-strength form rather than stand-alone tools. Then in 2012, it introduced an app called Photoshop Touch, which took a smallish subset of desktop Photoshop’s features, stripped out most of their advanced features, and rejiggered the interface so it worked with touch input.

This year, the company started all over again. It discontinued development of Photoshop Touch–which was available for iPhones and Android devices as well as iPads–and announced that Photoshop’s future on the iPad and other mobile devices would henceforth involve smaller, specialized tools rather than anything that retained Photoshop’s traditional everything-and-the-kitchen-sink flavor.


The move had been in the works for a while. “We did a rethinking of our strategy a year and a half ago,” explains Manu Anand, an Adobe senior product manager. “Initially, we were on the path of, let’s take Photoshop from the desktop and make it run as efficiently as possible. We were bringing a lot of the complexity that one can associate with Photoshop on the desktop to mobile devices.”

Photoshop Fix, the newest mobile incarnation of Photoshop

In 2014, even before Adobe yanked Photoshop Touch off the market, it released Photoshop Mix, a mobile app focused entirely on layering and compositing multiple elements into one image and currently available for the iPad, iPhone, and Android phones. Then in October of this year, it introduced Photoshop Fix, a retouching app for iPads and iPhones, with an Android version in the works.

“We like to think of it as an atomized approach to Photoshop,” Anand says.

Both Mobile And Modern

The company’s new strategy isn’t just about breaking Photoshop down into its component parts. A lot has happened with mobile devices since Lewis–who is now engineering lead for Photoshop Fix–got excited over the original iPad more than half a decade ago.

For starters, the iPad and other gadgets have gotten dramatically more powerful. Apple is fond of saying that the iPad Pro has 22 times more CPU performance and 360 times the graphics performance of the 2010 iPad, and that it’s faster than 80% of the portable PCs released in the past year. Though mobile Photoshop apps still do some of their processing in the cloud, where they have access to all the computing cycles they could ever need, they can also do some really sophisticated things right on the devices themselves.


The state of interface design for touch-screen devices has also gone far beyond where it was when the company created Photoshop Touch, which was utilitarian at best. By scrapping that app and starting over, Adobe had another shot at envisioning image-editing experiences for 2015 and beyond.

The original draft of the face-aware liquify feature (left) gave way to a much simpler version in the final app.

You can see both factors–more capable hardware and highly evolved interface design–in Photoshop Fix’s Liquify feature. The tool, which lets you nudge an image’s pixels around to create subtle effects such as curling someone’s lips up into a smile, has long been available in desktop Photoshop. But Fix’s version is in some ways more advanced than its ancestors from the standpoint of both technology and usability.

Photoshop Fix’s liquify offers a face-aware option that’s smart enough to analyze images and identify facial features. That lets you make eyes larger, lips fuller, or noses pointier with just a few quick gestures, eliminating the need for the sort of painstaking adjustments required by previous versions of the feature.

Adobe’s original draft of face-aware liquify’s interface was so complex that it looked like John Madden had broken into the app and begun scribbling on it with a Telestrator. In the final version, the app overlays circles on a person’s eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth, and chin. Touch a circle, and controls relating to that facial feature pop up. Everything happens right on top of the image, rather than via sliders of the type used by Photoshop Touch, which were reminiscent of the dialog boxes in desktop apps. It’s about as intuitive and finger-friendly as a feature can get.

“The majority of the work on face-aware liquifying was done by an intern from South Korea,” says Lewis. “She had some mentoring, but she wrote all the code. There were times when she was driving the design.”

Early prerelease versions of face-aware liquify (left) had desktop-like sliders; the final version overlays controls right on the image.

When it came to healing, a feature which lets you perform common retouching jobs such as fixing skin blemishes, the first goal was to ensure that it could work adequately on a phone or tablet at all. Serious users “might tap 100 different points on a person’s face–it blows me away,” Lewis says. “That would be too slow to send it up to a server 100 times. We had to make our healing technology perform well on mobile.”

In its final form, the healing feature goes far beyond merely providing acceptable performance. “Not only did we get the speed where we wanted it to be, but we improved the experience,” Lewis says. “We’re taking advantage of multiple cores on a mobile device and doing healing on the background. As the user is tap, tap, tapping, we’ll do things in the background and catch up. It’s actually a better experience than on the desktop.”

A Different Sort of Photoshop

The fact that an Adobe computer scientist can speak of an iOS version of Photoshop being superior to the desktop incarnation in certain respects shows how far mobile devices have come. But superiority isn’t about beating classic Photoshop at its own game, which continues to involve providing professional users with an infinite number of infinitely customizable tools.

Professional photographer Sarah Silver

Which brings up a question: Is an app like Photoshop Fix interesting to the sort of ambitious creative people who have made Photoshop so successful for so long, even though it makes no attempt to replicate the desktop version?

To make sure that it was, Adobe picked the brains of advanced users as it developed the program. One of them was Sarah Silver, a New York-based photographer who specializes in subjects such as fashion, beauty, and dance. As she explains it, “They came and said, ‘Hey, as a pro photographer, what would you like to see? What would you like to share?'”

An example of Sarah Silver’s workPhoto courtesy of Sarah Silver

It turned out that the desktop version of Photoshop offered scads of features that she didn’t need, and which might even get in the way. For the sort of high-end work she does for clients such as Vogue, DKNY, L’Oreal, and Nike, “we have dedicated retouchers. That’s all they do all day long,” she says. “My needs are more to be setting the stage for what the retoucher will do next. I might have to mark up on the fly on my way home in the taxi, so that the client can review that night and send it to the big boss to turn around in 24 hours. I don’t have time to sit on a laptop. I don’t have a Wacom [pen tablet] with me.”

In other words, Adobe’s new version of mobile Photoshop–specialized apps that allow for high-quality results without a lot of effort on devices such as the iPad–resonated with her.

Silver says she’d love to see Photoshop Fix add the sort of private messaging features that would let her collaborate with clients right inside the app. And she thinks that Adobe’s fresh take on Photoshop could end up changing career paths in her business.

“One of the things that’s really exciting from my point of view, emotionally, is that if you want to incorporate Photoshop and you don’t know all about it, Fix is not daunting,” she says. “It used to be you had to take advanced courses. You had to be an apprentice retoucher to get to the level where you’d be confident and could do something. Everything has its limits, but this is a great way to teach the next generation about Photoshop and retouching, and how to make your images better.”

From the moment that Adobe started picking her brain about Photoshop Fix, Silver was intrigued. Now, she says, “I could see this growing into something much larger than what I’d ever imagined.”


About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.