February 21, 2006

Biology 101: How an Application is Born

I've seen several posts on various forums and blogs and such, in which people express their hopes that Adobe will kill both Illustrator and FreeHand and create a brand new Illustration tool that will build on the strengths of its predecessors and become the worlds most amazing vector tool ever.

The point of my post today isn't to deflate the hopes and desires of my fellow countrymen (hope you don't mind me calling all of you that -- couldn't think of anything other than "homies" and that didn't fit to my liking in this case), but rather, to give you a glimpse into the microscope of one of the wonders of the world -- a true miracle indeed -- the birth of a major computer graphics application.

I won't bother reinventing the wheel -- some of you may have heard of a new applicaiton that Adobe recently released as a public beta. An application called LightRoom, which is an application aimed mainly at Photographers. While rumors abounded about how this app was an obvious response to Apple's Aperture application which was released several months earlier, I was well aware that LightRoom (codename: Shadowland) was in existence for quite some time. I had even seen it while I was still working at Adobe, and that was back in 2003. Jeff Schewe detailed an excellent recount of his personal history with Shadowland, and it does offer a somewhat similar view to what I am talking about today -- that applications don't just grow in a petry dish overnight. They must be nurtured and developed.

So let's talk about a few things about Illustrator itself, which will help us to better understand some of the points I hope to make. There are features, and there are "BIG" features. Even though a new version of Illustrator may appear with some new features, that doesn't mean every new feature was developed during that one development cycle. For example, work on the new text engine that was added in Illustrator CS was actually started after the release of Illustrator 8. It was hoped that the text engine would be ready for Illustrator 10, but it wasn't ready until Illustrator CS. Transparency took years to develop (and an equal number of years to mature). The 3D feature in Illustrator CS was only possible because it was a full blown 3D application in itself (Dimensions) before it made it into Illustrator. That was several years of development in itself. These are just some examples. Granted, once these features already exist, and all has been figured out with regards to how they are used, it would take shortly to develop them a second time around, but you're still talking about a VERY significant amount of work.

Now let's talk about another aspect of development. Usability. Every feature that is defined and added to Illustrator is carefully thought out, and each feature is pitted up against another to figure out how those features will work together. User Interface designers also have to design how the features will appear in the interface and how those features will work. The behavior of each of these features are incredibly detailed and carefully documented. And these all have to be tested of course. To add even more work, I'd venture to say that if Adobe were to create a new app, I'd really hope to see a much improved user interface. So figure that everything that exists today would have to be completely revisisted, rethought, and retooled to be better, more efficient, and look prettier (yes, that's important too).

So let's toss out a number for a minute, shall we? I'm going to venture that to create a new fully-funcitonal vector application from scratch -- one that will replace AI and FH and be better than both of those apps combined -- you'd need a team of about 100 people (engineers, product managers, quality engineers, ui designers, etc.) and about 12 years of development time. Of course, Adobe can't wait 12 years to release the next version of Illustrator -- and there is a way to cut that development time down -- by adding more people to help with the task. Let's figure that if we double the amount of people on the project, we come to 200 people and 6 years of development. 400 people and you're down to 3 years. Even Microsoft wouldn't do that. Now, if you tell me that releasing such a program would rake in a billion dollars a year, then you're talking about something. But that isn't the case -- as much as we might want to believe it, the Illustration market doesn't have that kind of upside. Heck, even Acrobat has a ways to go to see that kind of money.

Remember also that a year ago, no one (even at Adobe) would have thought that Adobe would buy Macromedia, so the idea of Adobe dumping AI to rewrite it several years ago is ludicrous. And if they suddenly decided that now that they have FreeHand, it's time to start from scratch, that's a ludicrous thought equally as well. Adobe can't afford to sit still for years before releasing new Illustration software when Microsoft is knocking at the door with Acrylic.

I'm not saying that Adobe isn't always working on new applications -- they are. I've seen some of them and they are cool. Adobe has always proven that they can innovate, and they do it well. But if you look at what you have in front of you, and you be totally honest with yourself, you'll see a different picture.

Rather than build a whole new app, I'd like to see Adobe focus on taking some existing apps that still have room to grow and make them integrate better. If AI and FH and Flash are all vector apps, let's find a way to move graphics between ALL of those apps with no data loss (including Text, ahem) and allow me to generate what my mind sees without any barriers.


Aongus Collins said...

I'm intrigued to see Acrylic (formerly Creature House Expression) mentioned in this blog. I used the original version on the Mac; the program is now confined to Windows XP.

It does in vectors what Painter does in pixels. Its features don't match Illustrator's all-round set, but its natural art brushes leave Illustrator's in the dust.

I use Illustrator for cartoons and newspaper graphics, and see editors reacting against a "computerised" look. I'd like Illustrator to get better at producing organic-looking art -- before a Windows-only product like Acrylic becomes an industry standard.

As for merging FreeHand and Illustrator, I've found FreeHand's selection tools easier that Illustrator's. Not a day goes by without my having to select, deselect and select once more when a segment is highlighted instead of a point or control handle. The merger gives Adobe a chance to resolve one of Illustrator's biggest annoyances.

But any suggestion that Adobe should start from scratch with a totally new app leaves me cold. The 18 (?) or so years of Illustrator development represent 18 or so years of testing and debugging. Imagine the teething problems a shiny new app would cause. (Apple's 10.3.0 and 10.4.0 releases spring to mind.)

Erin Sparling said...

I wait with anticipation to see where Adobe's more cutting-edge interfaces (like the one in lightroom) translate to in future products. For example, it seems like an obvious jump to directly lift the interface for photo adjustments from Lightroom and put them in Camera Raw.

I've been using Camera Raw since CS, and it certainly helps with editing Raw files, but it just seems to make more sense the way it is all layed out in Lighroom. This, of course, makes perfect sense to me, since Lightroom's interface is the response I'm sure to Camera Raw UI research as well as a response to the competition.

Now, translating some of these interface elements to other programs causes so many other problems though. For example, if they really did update Illustrator to all of a sudden look completely different, but work basically the same under the hood, just with an easier way to get to features, I know a lot of people (not me though) who would be upset and confused.

There are so many people who use Illustrator not for art but for Production who see it and its interface as a tool, and major changes to this interface can cause serious setbacks to people. When you've got an install base of thousands, telling people to "get used to it" just doesn't cut it sometimes.

Mordy Golding said...

There are so many people who use Illustrator not for art but for Production who see it and its interface as a tool, and major changes to this interface can cause serious setbacks to people. When you've got an install base of thousands, telling people to "get used to it" just doesn't cut it sometimes.

Hey Erin, great comment. Having a production background myself, I know exactly what you mean. And it's true. I always said that one of the biggest "problems" with Illustrator is that so many different types of people use it. Making any kind of change almost assures the wrath of some market segment, somewhere in the world.