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Finally: real Photoshop on the iPad

An exclusive look at the future of Adobe’s biggest app

Adobe really wants you to know that the upcoming Photoshop CC for the iPad, which was announced today and is set to be released sometime in 2019, is “real Photoshop.”

The phrase “real Photoshop” came up several times during my week-long preview of an early version of the software giant’s long-awaited app. The underlying code is the same as desktop Photoshop, and although the interface has been rethought for the iPad, the same core tools line the edges of the screen.

But the biggest change of all is a total rethinking of the classic .psd file for the cloud, which will turn using Photoshop into something much more like Google Docs. Photoshop for the iPad is a big deal, but Cloud PSD is the change that will let Adobe bring Photoshop everywhere.

Bringing a program like Photoshop to the iPad is a monumental task. The project started 18 months ago when two Adobe engineers asked to carve out time to bring the Photoshop codebase to the iPad. “There was just a lot of doubt until what we call the “proof of life” moment,” says Scott Belsky, Adobe’s chief product officer. Senior director Pam Clark agrees: “We fully admit we were surprised when the engineers showed up, and it was quite powerful and smooth.” That “proof of life” product inspired the design team to start focusing on the app’s user experience, with each new build focusing on a different Photoshop workflow.

“Photoshop has stopped being a desktop product and has become a system,“ Belsky says. Photoshop is an all-in-one platform, an industry standard that’s used by professionals and internet memesters alike. And since the 2011 switch to the Creative Cloud model that bundled Photoshop into a monthly subscription, it’s a program that’s constantly evolving with new updates. You can use Photoshop for 10 years and still learn a faster, easier way to do something.

That’s the challenge in bringing an already difficult-to-master program to the iPad: figuring out an intuitive and easy way to translate a powerful photo-editing app for a new platform that doesn’t have a mouse or keyboard. “The teams felt very passionate about not having this friction when you see a new UI,” Belsky said. “The common discussion was capitalizing on familiarity.”

The app is being unveiled to the public for the first time at the Adobe Max conference today, but it won’t actually be available until next year. It’ll be part of the Creative Cloud subscription, so if you’re already paying for Photoshop on desktop, you’ll be able to use it on an iPad. There’s no word on standalone pricing, and Adobe hasn’t made a decision yet on whether Photoshop for the iPad will have a one-time purchase fee or require a subscription of some kind.

I’ve been using Photoshop for the iPad for the past week, and it feels distinctly like Photoshop with a few design choices optimized for a touchscreen. It doesn’t have every tool available in desktop Photoshop; in fact, it’s missing the entire upper task bar with the drop-down menu. Instead, you’ll find tools like adjustment layers in the collapsible right-side toolbar.

“The features we’re bringing in first really focus on compositing workflows — bringing in images, combining and manipulating pixels to blend together,” says senior product manager Jenny Lyell. “The features we have in the app right now are around layers, transforming, selections, masking, brushing.” Video-oriented features like the Timeline panel have been left out for now, so this first version of Photoshop for iPad can’t be used for animation or quick video editing.

There aren’t any keyboard shortcuts or gesture controls, although Adobe plans to incorporate them in the future. But there is a neat interface element called the touch modifier, a context-aware button that shows up on the bottom left corner of the screen (depending on which tool you’re using). If you’re using the brush tool, for example, holding the button down instantly switches to the eraser, then back to the brush when you let go. Holding the touch modifier down when you’re using the Move tool will automatically toggle to let you duplicate layers without having to select the function manually. It’s a thoughtful addition that eases the learning curve for the iPad user experience.

“From my experience using the early, early version of this new product that we just shared, I don’t see why I would go to the desktop to do a retouching type of workflow,” Belsky says. “It’s powerful, it’s somewhat faster, and it’s super easy and native with a touch experience as opposed to a cursor.”

Adobe’s new Cloud PSD format is a big part of Belsky’s vision for Photoshop’s future, but it wasn’t ready to test yet. Cloud PSD files live in the cloud and sync changes across devices so you can work on the same file on desktop and mobile devices that have Photoshop CC. “Cloud PSDs, when we ship Photoshop on the iPad, will also run and automatically show up on your desktop,” Belsky says. “Suddenly, you’ll have this cloud-powered roundtrip experience akin to a Google Docs experience, where literally the source of truth of your Photoshop creation is in the cloud.”

Access to Cloud PSDs is also the biggest benefit of being a Creative Cloud subscriber. There are options in Photoshop CC for the iPad to import files from iCloud Drive, Google Drive, and Dropbox, but it’s likely these services will only save traditional PSD files. “The beauty of it with Creative Cloud and the Cloud PSD and the innovations there is that you can just pick up where you left off, and you can be somewhat agnostic,” Belsky says. “You can always go back in history. You can share it and have other people be able to go back and undo things you did.”

Adobe’s enthusiasm for cloud-based workflows was met with some skepticism when it split Lightroom into CC and Classic versions in 2017. Since Lightroom CC was based around online storage, users had to become Adobe subscribers to pay for storage. However, Belsky doesn’t think the Lightroom model applies to Photoshop on the iPad. “It’s a bit of a different metaphor. There’s still Photoshop across every surface, and there is one Photoshop for each Photoshop experience,” he says.

This also brings up the question of whether the “real Photoshop” for Android could ever be a possibility. Will there be an eventual Google Play Store launch? “We already have a number of products on Android, and we hope to bring more,” is all Belsky will say.

Because Microsoft’s Surface devices and other Windows tablets have been able to run full Windows programs, there hasn’t been a need for a separate Photoshop. But using a full Photoshop program on a touchscreen still requires small tweaks and optimizations, like changing the sizes of pen tool anchors and other small workflows that can be hard to navigate with a clumsy finger. Will the touch optimizations for the iPad make it to Photoshop for Windows? Again, Belsky isn’t saying. “The short answer is: the team’s exploring it, of course, and we’re always trying to modernize our desktop experience.”

It’s been eight years since the iPad was released, but there’s never been a full Photoshop app on the iPad (just lite apps like Photoshop Express and Sketch). In that time, the lack of Photoshop on the iPad has led artists to seek out alternatives like Affinity and Procreate. Having seen what Adobe’s planning in the first version of Photoshop CC for the iPad, it doesn’t feel like a complete replacement of the desktop app; second-screen apps like Astropad and Duet Display, which let artists use desktop Photoshop on their iPads, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But if Adobe can pull off transferable Cloud PSDs that track changes across devices, it’d be enough to call it “real Photoshop.”

So what does this mean for bringing other Adobe programs to the iPad? Is Illustrator on the way? “I certainly want to bring more of the suite of creative products to the iPad,” Belsky says. “Every product should be a multisurface system.”

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