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Why Photoshop tops most-wanted Linux app list

Photoshop? The application most people want, at this date, to be ported to Linux from Windows is Photoshop? Color me surprised!

When Novell Inc. started its survey of what applications people wanted ported to Linux, both Novell CoolSolutions site editor Scott Morris and I were both surprised to find Adobe Photoshop anywhere near the top of the list in early results.

Quicken, my own favorite, QuickBooks, Dreamweaver — sure. But Photoshop — when we already have GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program)?

GIMP, in case you don’t know, has long been considered one of the Linux desktop’s success stories. For example, it’s been described as offering, “a level of functionality comparable to Photoshop for free” in LinuxPlanet — back in the year 2000.

Now, what I know about photo editing programs could be placed in a small, say, 360KB 5.25-inch floppy disk. If you can’t do it with Google’s Picasa on Windows, F-Spot on Linux/GNOME, or iPhoto on Mac OS X, it’s beyond me.

So I pestered some of my friends in the graphics business to see why Linux users would prefer Photoshop over GIMP.

First of all, Photoshop — on either Mac OS X or Windows — is the default photographic and prepress program for serious graphics firms. Just as Quark Inc.’s QuarkXPress was for the longest time the best layout program in serious publishing work, Photoshop is simply “The” application that professionals use.

It’s also not really thought of as a “Windows” application in many shops. For many graphic pros, it’s a Mac OS program. So this appears to be a case where it’s not really so much that people want a Windows application ported to Linux, they want what they see as the best-of-breed application, regardless of operating system, to run on Linux.

I was also told that while GIMP’s functionality may rival Photoshop’s, how you get there is very different. For instance, to users who know Photoshop, GIMP’s SDI (Single Document Interface) can be confusing. In GIMP, each image gets a separate window, whereas Photoshop’s MDI (Multiple Document Interface) groups them all together in a single window.

Now, this may not sound like much, but I picked this example because the debate over whether SDIs or MDIs are the better way to handle a desktop is one of those endless debates in interface usability circles. Most people aren’t aware of the details of these issues; they just know that if they’re used to doing it one way, doing it the other way is a lot more difficult.

GIMP’s interface has also been criticized for hiding menus that should be near the top. I did some checking on this and I wonder if some Photoshop fans just haven’t looked at GIMP’s upcoming 2.4 update. For example, as Nathan Willis, in his early look at GIMP 2.4 in NewsForge noted, in the new GIMP, operations now have a top-level menu of their own instead of being buried in the Layer menu.

If you want a more Photoshop-like interface to GIMP today, your best choice is Scott Moschella’s self-described “hack” Gimpshop.

GIMP 2.4 will also include color management. This is a must for serious graphic designers, who must work with on-screen images that will end up in print. It’s still not perfect, according to both Willis and my friends in the business, but it’s a start.

Willis also lists several things that are still missing from GIMP 2.4.

“The most fundamental shortcoming of the GIMP, according to graphics professionals, remains its limitation to grayscale and RGB image modes; press-ready images need CMYK (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black), and many designers make heavy use of Lab color and duotone (tinted) modes. Second is its limitation to 8-bit color — as high-end scanner and digital camera prices drop, more and more people need to work with 16-bit-per-channel data,” wrote Willis.

Photoshop also has its own world of software training. There are many different ways to get to slightly different ends in Photoshop. People who’ve taken the time and trouble to learn many of them have very little incentive to learn another graphics program.

Another problem, according to my buddies, is that besides Photoshop itself, there are hundreds of Photoshop plug-in programs. Of those, everyone has their handful of favorites that they use on most of their projects. GIMP simply doesn’t have anything close to this sort of third-party add-on software community.

In addition, other important graphics and publishing programs are set to work with Photoshop. For example, remember how I said QuarkXPress “used to be” the pros’ only choice for pre-print and page layout? It’s being knocked off its pedestal by Adobe InDesign. In part, that’s because Adobe Bridge enables easy file integration across the entire Adobe creative suite.

As my colleague, John Rizzo, observed in our sister publication, Publish, “It’s no stretch to say that Adobe Systems Inc.’s Photoshop has made the transition from user application to major developer platform.”

And, there you have it — the reasons why users want Photoshop.

GIMP? It’s good, and it’s getting better, but unless Adobe takes a wrong step, I don’t see it playing a major role on professional desktops.

Some would argue, of course, that since GIMP is free software, it will eventually play a larger role. I still don’t see it.

As Rizzo said, and I’ve seen and heard now, Photoshop really is a platform, not just an application. When you’re buying into an entire system, as the graphics business clearly has, the upfront cost of a single application doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the buying decision.

Still, if you look beneath the surface, simply bringing Photoshop over to Linux isn’t going be enough. For Linux to be taken seriously in design shops, Adobe needs to start moving its entire creative suite of software to Linux.

While Adobe has been edging toward Linux for some time now, it also took its own sweet time in bringing the latest version of Adobe Reader, aka Acrobat, to Linux. After all, Adobe didn’t even release Version 6 for Linux.

Still, Adobe did show up for the OSDL’s desktop architect meeting this past December. This was not a meeting for just anyone; only a few dozen of the top Linux desktop designers and architects were there. Because Adobe was there, it must be taking the Linux desktop seriously.

I certainly hope they are. After all, as the Novell survey is showing, Linux desktop users are certainly taking Photoshop seriously.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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