Project Context puts a little analog back in the digital, letting layout artists work with pages in the same way they once did with real layout boards. At the same time, it can accommodate video, audio, color palettes, and universal changes in ways no piece of paper ever could. Wired’s Design Director Claudia de Almeida demonstrated Project Context in use with InDesign.
Pencil and ruler: Adobe’s new take on school bag buddies. (Source: JPR)
No doubt the Adobe executives planning for this year's Max Conference in Los Angeles packed their flak jackets because they knew the company's rush to the cloud and online-managed subscriptions was going to catch some fire. They were right.
Nevertheless, Adobe's CEO Shantanu Narayen and General Manager/VP David Wadhwani took to the stage and presented their case for cloud workflows and all-you-can-eat subscription with fierce enthusiasm.
The focus this year was on the user rather than the technology. Good idea, because it is Adobe's committed customer base that's going to have to sign on to Adobe's vision. Adobe is making pretty good headway with its professional users, but the company's got work to do with the masses. In presentations for Adobe's investors and financial analysts, Wadhwani said the company expects to see four million users subscribing to the Creative Cloud by 2015; 500,000 have already signed up.
Adobe built much of Max around collaboration, communication, and Behance, one of its newer acquisitions, a social media site for creatives, where people can collaborate and share their work. Behance lets people upload their portfolios and get tips, but also get voted up or down depending on the quality. The focus is clearly on the professional.
Behance CEO Scott Belsky told the audience that he and Adobe supported the idea of creating a meritocracy for artists, where people could be credited for their work and, more importantly, paid for it. Behance hopes to help the best artists rise to the top. It's no secret that art gets stolen, and Behance helps people stake out an early claim to their work.
Adobe Figures Out 3D
Adobe Max is a huge show for Adobe, it features classes in all its products, and the company uses it to position its new technology and products for the year. So, we thought the glorious, stupendous, 3D opening for Adobe Max was significant, even if it did delay the festivities for 20 minutes or so.
When it finally happened, it was worth it: bright 3D projections swirled around a wrap-around set to give a feeling of immersion. Maxon, as you know by now, has teamed with Adobe to integrate its Cinema 4D into After Effects. A chance chat with Paul Babb, CEO of Maxon US, tells us he's seeing more people who were already using 3D tools to work with After Effects switching to Cinema 4D, but he thinks it's going to take a bit longer to get people who don't use 3D tools to try them out, even if they're included in After Effects for free.
Adobe has been trying to figure out how to give its customers 3D capabilities without building its own 3D application. Meanwhile, Maxon has committed its resources to integrating its Cinema 4D 3D application with Adobe's After Effects. The live demo presented content that could have been created for a car commercial, and using Maxon, they were able to flip out of After Effects, grab and fine-tune a grill for an off-road vehicle, come back into After Effects, and slap it on the car.
The interactive workflow between the two products gave them the ability to tweak the image until they were happy with it. It was convincing. One of the themes we have been seeing emerge throughout the film and TV industry is the melding of 3D content in special effects compositing. Yes, 3D is an intrinsic part of special effects, but the content creation worlds are distinct. Compositing tools like After Effects, Side Effects' Houdini, Eyeon Fusion, The Foundry's Nuke, and Autodesk Combustion work with 3D planes - they're 2.5D with an understanding of how to integrate true 3D content. However there is more work being done to better integrate those worlds and the artists working in them. At least part of the reason for the Foundry's acquisition of Luxology is driven by this interest in better 3D integration and Autodesk sniffs that they have 3D and compositing already. Adobe's point is that collaboration and communication is key to bringing disparate worlds together.
The Cloud Is Everything
Not all users are quite so happy with Adobe right now. Narayen announced that future Creative Suite products would no longer be sold as perpetual licenses, which is how Adobe describes the ability to buy a product and own it, rather than rent it via subscription. Instead the Creative Suite products will be sold on a subscription basis, and they'll be called Creative Cloud products, CC. The cloud pricing is the same as it was last year on introduction: the same painless introductory price of $29.99, which goes up to the slightly more painful $49.99 after a year.
Also, Adobe will extend the backward compatibility of the cloud products - at least from CS 6 onward. For those who refuse to see the glory of the cloud, CS 6 will remain available and supported for an unspecified amount of time...but longish.
At Max, where the faithful were gathered, Adobe's announcement went over reasonably well. Longtime users seem to like the Creative Cloud. We talked to several people whose businesses depend on the Creative Cloud, and they're taking the news with equanimity. In fact, for the most part, people have seen this coming. They just didn't see it coming so soon.
The people we talked to, representatives from advertising agencies, Web portals, and other creative houses, said they welcome the standardization of the Creative Cloud. Most admitted they'd be paying more for Adobe's products under the new model, but they also felt they were getting a lot more, and they valued the predictability of it and the ease with which they could keep everyone on the same versions of software to ensure compatibility between workers on the same project. Out in the world, however, there is much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. There is even a Change.org petition (
www.change.org/petitions/adobe-systems-incorporated-eliminate-the-mandatory-creative-cloud-subscription-model) calling for Adobe to please put back the option to buy perpetual licenses.
It's unclear whether all these people actually use Adobe's products, but they've got opinions nonetheless. We notice, too, that Corel, likewise, has an opinion. Corel and Quark both have taken the opportunity to reiterate their products' availability as buy-once retail products.
The documented life: We’re all capturing the moment. Trying out moves outside Adobe Max at the LA Convention Center. (Source: JPR)
Adobe's Foray into Hardware
Adobe's biggest surprise came as it unveiled the work it's been doing in hardware. The company demonstrated a new pen design, a ruler, and a digital whiteboard for magazine production. The pen and ruler were developed through Project Mighty, which was demonstrated on an iPad. The giant layout tool was developed through Project Context and looks like a Surface application. The pen is triangular shaped and comfortable. As a left-hander, I found it comfortable, and the buttons were in the right place.
The pen includes memory to recall a person's settings and preferences, as well as the ability to draw, erase, and redraw. It's also tightly integrated with Adobe Cloud and can pull in stored Kuler color-palette themes and stored assets. In this case, you really do have everything at your fingertips: As you move from device to device, the pen remembers what you were up to.
The pen has a companion in Napoleon, a ruler that can be used as a reference point for lines and arcs. Michael Gough demonstrated the new Project Mighty tools on the Max stage (www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Jexqp-MK0pI). He was clearly proud of what the Adobe developers and their partners have done. One of the things that Adobe has tried to do with their new input devices is to return a more natural feel to the process of drawing without leaving behind the advantages of digital tools, like copy and paste. The pen fosters the use of two hands in drawing, just like people do with paper; you can erase with your other hand or turn the "paper," and of course you can manipulate the ruler. The pen has an LED on the top to provide feedback and Bluetooth status.
I talked to Geoff Dowd, senior experience design lead at Adobe, who told me the pen is capacitive, as pens pretty much have to be to work with the iPad, but he notes that instead of the rubber bullet point used by most stylii for iPad, Adobe engineered the smallest rubber tip they could. He says, "It was quite an effort! Striking the balance between hitting Apple's iOS technical requirements of a touch and perceived accuracy, we have a great tip."
Dowd continues: "Adobe worked with industrial design firm Ammunition to design a pen that feels good in the hand and draws well." MindTribe handled the electrical and mechanical engineering.
Context is a little more out there. It's a resource-heavy, digital version of layout boards and tables. I was surprised that anyone still works this way, though it does look like a luxury, too. It combines large, vertical LED screens to see the pages as if they were hung up on the wall - just like it used to be in the old days - and a flat table to let people lean in. All the screens are touch-enabled to let users flip through pages or even "throw" them from screen to screen.
Tech Crunch's Frederick Lardinois talked to Adobe's David Macy, who let it slip that the team was also thinking about creating a table much like one you'd see in an architect's office, so it won't surprise you to hear that some people on the team, including Michael Gough, have a background in architecture.
Project Context is clearly the result of thinking big. It's not for every publication, but the work these people have been doing could easily translate to other applications and slightly less huge and expansive form factors - though we were pretty jealous of Wired's resources.
Adobe is not the only company involved in actively re-architecting the content creation business, but they are pretty fearless in taking the lead. The company recognizes that collaboration is an integral part of professional content creation, and by offering a common layer of increasingly interconnected products, Adobe has a chance to create a long-term, stable business for itself - a chance it might not have as competitors continuously take strikes at its individual point products.
Photoshop, one of the strongest products in the franchise, is also one of the most vulnerable. Professionals recognize it as a standard tool, but competitors are tireless as they add in their own features to their competing products and chip away at the Adobe luster. Corel has grandly announced support for "perpetual licenses" perpetually or thereabouts. Likewise, arch-competitor Quark, which has lost considerable ground to InDesign, has tried to capitalize on the unhappiness of some customers who hate the idea of "renting" their software.
As sure as Adobe seems to be about their position with their base of professional users, the company has reached out to their community of photographers. Adobe acknowledges photographers' very specific workflow is a subset of the entire Create Cloud world of capabilities - many of which are not interesting to photographers.
Meanwhile, Adobe's ideas for hardware aren't really new - they tap in to the longing that people have had ever since the computer came along and made us start drawing with rock-shaped mice instead of pencil and paper, but it's the really simple things that are sometimes the most revolutionary. Too bad we're probably going to have to have a few rounds of pen wars before we get something that will be universally useful.
Probably the best part of Adobe Max was the part I didn't even mention: The day two focus on the work artists are doing. Do yourself a favor and watch Erik Johannson's presentation below to see what can be done with Adobe's software.
Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW,
a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR's "TechWatch." She can be reached at