What’s the Matter with Adobe?

How the Sandbox Problem has Always Dogged the Top Graphic Software Firm.

By: BW Ellis
Originally Published: May, 23rd 2015

When you work long enough with a set of tools the amazing wow factor of all the things that they do correctly is overshadowed by the things they do equally as wrong. For the past two decades I have been working with the Adobe Software suite and after hundreds of working days that ran into the wee hours of the morning, I can say that despite the magical and revolutionary elements of the applications they leave much to be desired.

The pitfalls and demerits of the program were brought into a further state of glaring clarity by the development of the Creative Cloud. This extraordinary system of application management and workflow design is intended to streamline the production throughput and bring all the separate parts of your design team so close that they will all start requesting a mouthwash dispenser in the bathroom.

The tragic thing is that the Creative Cloud concept is what’s so obviously missing from the separate parts of Adobe Systems, a phenomenon I call the Sandbox Problem.

Adobe started over 30 years ago creating fonts and then later released the font creation software as Illustrator, then a few years later they acquired Photoshop. From that point forward the majority of Adobe’s software was acquired by purchasing other software companies, Dreamweaver and Flash were developed by Macromedia, PageMaker (the predecessor of InDesign) was originally developed by Aldus.

While this practice of acquiring companies rather than developing their own software works great for the accountants and investors, it introduces a real issue for the people who actually use the software. Like children adopted into a single house, yet all given their own sandboxes to play in, we are seeing an aversion to sharing or collaboration.

The very attribute the Creative Cloud was developed to provide for the people who use the software is obviously missing from the people who wrote it. For anyone who has used the Adobe Software package and tried to compare and contrast the functions of the programs this could not be more obvious and yet it is a problem that endures version after version because the children in the different sandboxes do not want to share, or they are not allowed to.

That is a problem with leadership, not technical development or engineering.

The Examples are all Around you…

This is the section of the article that is going to get a little inside baseball, so to speak. For the purposes of column inches and sanity, I will confine these comparisons to Photoshop and Illustrator since they demonstrate that even two programs that started in the Adobe house are not communicating properly.

  1. Guides. These are the lines we use in most if not all design programs to give us straight edge vertical or horizontal rulers to align with and measure by. They are the standard chapter one lesson from “The Idiot’s Guide to Digital Design” yet Adobe does not seem to be able to standardize the use between its own programs.
    In Photoshop you can set up a custom keyboard shortcut for numerically positioning the guide on the page from the View>New Guide menu option. This simple function saves me more time than I care to admit yet the same is not available in Illustrator. The work around for the kids in the Illustrator sandbox is to place the guide then click on the X or Y coordinate and then key in your desired location. It works, but it is nowhere near as expedient.
    In Illustrator you assign the guides to layers that can be separately locked and hidden. Did the children in the Photoshop sandbox not think that a photographer might want that functionality? I guess as a work around we could create a different document for every configuration of the guides, but that bores me and is extremely inefficient.
  2. Vector Based Tools. Everyone who has drawn in Illustrator knows the power of the vector based tools in that program. The Transform function alone is a daily step I employ for a variety of uses, yet when the time comes for me to use that in Photoshop with the vector based tools I must switch programs, link files, and play with an assortment of file issues that make the entire process more work than a creative individual wants to put up with.
    When Adobe announced that they added vector tools to Photoshop I was thrilled until I used them, talk about disappointing.
  3. Image Enlargement. When I go to enlarge an image in Photoshop I now have the tools to do so in the best way possible. The new features in the CC (2014) release of the software are bar none the finest in image enlargement I have ever seen. So when I opened Illustrator and saw that the enlargement tools there didn’t change I found myself un-thrilled. You see in my world of producing large scale images for wide format applications I need to chart out the precise measurements of the object being printed, and how those measurements combine with the vector based artworks that accompany them. Instead of expanding the tool set to allow for the same measure of mathematical perfection in the resizing of the image in all the programs the children in the Photoshop sandbox decided not to share, or were not allowed to.

I could go on but in outlining these three simple issues we begin to see a pattern. The developers in one Adobe sandbox are unwilling, or more likely unable, to collaborate as seamlessly with each other as the separate departments of a design studio can with each other using the software Adobe developed!

From a business standpoint, I get why you would want to hamstring some of your developers in favor of others. If you are looking to sell Photoshop to someone who only needs it for the image scaling feature to augment Illustrator you would lose money by combining the features. Adobe is in the business of selling the software, together or one at a time it would seem.

This simple truth of the business world surrounding Adobe was the reason that I did not push this issue too hard in the past. This was not a shortsighted error of the developers or designers, this was a decision that came from the management of the corporation who always keeps a close eye on the NASDAQ pricing of their shares.

So where does that leave the designers who need a better tool, without all the petty limitations?

A Solution That Requires Inspired Leadership

I am not looking to suggest that this snarky article about the failings of this industry giant is going to change the world, yet it might become the seed for the next graphics giant to develop its software to knock Adobe off its high horse.

The idea is this: Combine the Programs. 

Create a central master control program that utilizes the windows that exist in all the Adobe applications, a singular resource that can operate in a hybrid mode that offers all in one.

From the user’s standpoint, the alteration would make for a much more seamless control. Any file type, be it JPG, PNG, AI, EPS, PDF, INDD, HTML, CSS, or anything opens in the same program on a base canvas.

If the file is a bitmap then the bitmap array of tools automatically open (or the selection of windows pre-determined by the user) and the designer gets to work. Since Bridge is the method for simulating the Finder/Explorer functions and applying changes to single or massive groups of files this would be the ideal entry point for the document, especially multipage documents that require more granular selection of what would be edited.

If during the process the artist wants to add a vector-based illustration they open it and the advanced vector-based tools open in the same program with the bitmap tools. The color swatches are the same, the gradients are the same, the way the files are saved and/or exported can be made the same, the way the files are layered can be made the same. When the artist wants to use the vector art in the bitmap image they simply duplicate the layers to the other document and the guides, fill, and strokes go right along with it and all the tools they need for both bitmap and vector controls are at their fingertips, ready to be used in a single document.

No more bloated code with repeated functions across a dozen programs, no more random and incredibly confusing differences in the way one program works as opposed to another in the same family of software. No more having to open a file in a different program while you are guessing at where it was originally created nor having to have three, four, or five different programs open at once.

The arguments against such a program coming from Adobe could be easily enough guessed at but with the Creative Cloud subscription model and the automated way all of the programs download and install on the computer it makes me wonder if the vast majority of those concerns are not already solved for. 

The way I see it the one major hurdle to the completion of such a combined central resource is the standardization of all the functions and processes of the separate programs. Since they were all originally developed using different programming languages, systems, even development styles it seems that it would take a massive show of leadership and direction to make something like this happen.

What this conversation boils down to is the intent of the business developing the software. If the intent of the corporation is to simply make money and ignore the issues their financial decisions create then we can expect more of the same. If the executives of the company realize the evolution they have taken and the state of bitter irony that evolution has put them in perhaps, just perhaps, they will see the value behind this idea.

Are the executives at Adobe strong enough to break the sandboxes and force all the children of the Adobe development family to play and work together? Will another group of talented developers pick up this torch and run with it?

I certainly hope so because I have been waiting for 20 years for our design tools to clean up and fly straight, and with every release, the institutions of graphics software development both lifts up and lets us down to greater and greater degrees.