The battle for eyeballs

Last month, I looked at Adobe’s new online bitmap editor Photoshop Express and was impressed, but this was just the beginning of Adobe’s online ambitions. Not only has it produced the Flash/Flex platform for third-party developers, it wants to use them to become a major online software provider.

The battle for eyeballs

Of course, the brand to beat is Google, whose ability to almost-instantly return relevant web pages for any search phrase feels akin to magic. It isn’t, it’s just extensive indexing of the entire web, which demands serious processing power and storage. Google’s servers provide this power, so all you need is a browser – welcome to the world of Software as a Service (SaaS). Google’s Search may look like a generous gift to mankind, but actually it represents very big revenues. While everyone else was talking about how to make the web pay through some form of micropayments, Google pioneered the solution through targeted advertising, starting with ads on its own results pages, but soon extended them to third-party sites.

SaaS turned Google from a small start-up into one of the world’s largest companies in a few years, but only a fraction of the potential of SaaS has been tapped. There’s still plenty more browsing time to be monetised, which explains Google’s interest in buying into popular web services, such as YouTube and Facebook. What’s more, the race is on to extend SaaS into the time you spend working on your computer. Office productivity apps such as email, calendar and to-do list were a starter, but the real prize is to tap into the “eyeball time” you spend generating content with a word processor or spreadsheet.

Again, Google leads the pack with Google Docs (, which lets you create text files online, with embedded tables, pictures and fonts. Everything is handled as HTML inside your browser, but you can upload DOC files to work on and download them as DOC or PDF formats. You can download spreadsheets and presentations (with embedded YouTube videos) in XLS and PPT formats, too. Google Docs lets you access your data from any browser-supporting device, and exploits the benefits of online sharing: email the URL to colleagues so they can view or edit your documents. And if you install Gears, an open-source browser extension, you can work offline and then sync with Google’s servers when you reconnect.

A compelling proposition, especially once Google releases Android – its open-source mobile platform that provides a browser, Java machine and multimedia support. Then we’ll have a start-to-finish, universal SaaS solution covering production and consumption of documents, strongly supported on the platform of the future – the handheld device – and all, effectively, free. Google may be kick-starting another revolution in the browser, by shifting application delivery and content storage from client to server, into the all-encompassing “internet cloud”.

But what on earth does this have to do with Adobe which, at first sight, might seem the traditional developer least affected by the SaaS revolution. Microsoft’s core Office apps are clearly in Google’s line of fire, as they don’t need enormous processing power and most users use only a fraction of their capabilities. By contrast, designers ravenously pounce on every new feature of Adobe’s Creative Suite, and demand the most powerful of desktop PCs to run them effectively.

With Adobe’s professional Creative Suite currently immune from SaaS attack, that leaves the firm free to mount its own adventures and, seen in this light, Photoshop Express is a brilliant extension of the SaaS model into the new territory of online bitmap editing. Its relatively sluggish performance merely emphasises how unassailable Photoshop CSX remains for CPU-intensive desktop bitmap editing, while its benefits of online access, storage and sharing (plus, the fact it’s free) could well make Express into the dominant consumer photo-handling application. As anyone who has a digital camera knows, enhancing and organising photos is time-consuming.

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