I regularly receive spam offering Adobe software at bargain prices too good to be legal, but recently, an email claiming to come from Adobe itself offered me a version of Photoshop for free, and it wasn’t spam but absolutely genuine. Of course, there is a catch: it isn’t one of the existing desktop versions of Photoshop, but a new web-based version called Photoshop Express (www.photoshop.com/express) – the new online business model of Software as a Service (SaaS) in action. This came as a surprise, not just because it was free, but because if any application would seem to demand local handling it’s Photoshop, since it deals with huge, bandwidth-unfriendly bitmapped images. So how does Photoshop Express shape up?
My first impressions were less than positive when I tried to sign up a couple of days after launch but didn’t receive the necessary confirmation email. Clearly Adobe’s infrastructure wasn’t up to the demand, the cardinal sin for web-application delivery and hardly the professional experience you expect from the “Photoshop” brand. A month or so later, I received an email from Adobe apologising and asking me to retry, and this time the mail arrived in a few seconds and I was away.
The first step is to upload your photos, and immediately you hit Photoshop Express’ most significant limitation, a 2GB storage limit. Now 2,000 1MB JPEGs is hardly mean, but it’s a figure that’s been carefully chosen – it will take you a while to hit the ceiling but serious users inevitably will. There’s currently no way to increase your allowance, but this will surely come – at a price (for example, Flickr charges $25 a year). In short, Adobe isn’t about to give away the family silver, and SaaS is probably best interpreted as Software as a Subscription. So how does Photoshop Express shape up in this more realistic and sceptical light?
Back to image uploading, and to further limitations and disappointments. Photoshop Express only handles JPEGs, and for editing they’re restricted to 2,880 x 2,880 pixels (around 8 megapixels). Again, that’s neither mean nor surprising in an online context where bandwidth is all-important and JPEG rules, but it immediately eliminates Photoshop Express for manipulating high-resolution camera RAW formats, which is normally Photoshop territory. Selecting files to upload is relatively easy, but you can’t select whole folders, let alone sub-folders. Worse still, the upload is slow, with 65MB of sample files taking 40 minutes, and it doesn’t happen in background, so you’re left twiddling your thumbs for that time.
Once you have some images to play with you can edit them, but only one at a time. Every time you do this a “preparing photo for editing” dialog appears for anything between five and 15 seconds, and saving takes longer still. Once open, the features on offer come in three sections: Basics, including Crop/Rotate, Auto Correct and Red Eye Removal; Tuning, including White Balance, Sharpness and Fill In Flash; and Effects, which include black-and-white, various colour tweaks and distortions. It’s rather like working in Photoshop Elements’ Quick Fix view, but with a few filters thrown in. And with two major limitations. Firstly, there aren’t any sliders, so you don’t get any interactive control over adjustments. Secondly, if the five or six presets don’t do what you want that’s tough, since there’s no Full Edit mode you can turn to. In other words, forget not only about advanced features such as adjustment layers, layer effects and image compositing, but even about basic file commands such as changing resolution, file type and printing.