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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Adobe’s iOS app failure

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

I’m not a graphics professional by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been using Adobe Photoshop for more than 25 years. Its interface and keyboard shortcuts are stored deep within my neural pathways. So much so that, despite the plethora of great alternatives to Photoshop on macOS—the $30 Acorn and the $30 Pixelmator among them—I pay $119/year to Adobe so I can keep using Photoshop.

The power of familiar products and brands should not be underestimated—and not just with consumer products, but with professional tools too. I am paying more for Photoshop because I’d rather stick with the familiar than slow down my productivity while investigating a bunch of tools that are Not Photoshop. Sure, I might come out the other side just as productive (and with more money in my wallet), but how much time will I need to put in to get there? And what if my new tools fail me at a key moment when I need to perform a task that I know by heart in Photoshop?

There are limits to the power of familiarity and loyalty, of course. If Photoshop abandoned the Mac I wouldn’t switch to Windows. If Adobe decided to charge $300/year for Photoshop, I would probably not pay it. But my loyalty and familiarity is strong.

Now, how many hours per year do I spend in the five different iOS apps that bear the imprint of the Photoshop product family, many of whom are only accessible to people who (like me) have active Creative Cloud subscriptions? (Keeping in mind that I often travel with only my iPad Pro, and do an awful lot of my work on the iPad these day.)

The answer is zero. I never use them.

I have to give Adobe credit for trying to reinvent Photoshop on iOS. It’s built a custom drawing app called Adobe Sketch. Photoshop Fix is a capable image-retouching app. Photoshop Mix is used for compositing. And Photoshop Express provides basic image-adjustment functionality. There’s also the recently revamped Lightroom CC, which is perhaps the iOS app most reminiscent of its desktop versions.

And yet part of me longs for something that’s more recognizably Photoshop, a tool where I can quickly modify an image and save out a JPEG or PNG in a few different sizes for uploading to a web server. If that functionality is there in one of these “Photoshop” apps on iOS, I’ll be damned if I can find it.

I’ve got a bunch of web and podcast art templates that are saved as layered PSD files—that’s the Photoshop file format—in my Dropbox. How would I crack one of those open on iOS and use them? So far as I can tell, nothing Adobe makes will do the trick… but I can open those files in the $20 Affinity Photo without any trouble. Procreate for iPad will do the same. iOS is apparently a wasteland for active Photoshop users unless they buy and learn someone else’s app.

That’s great for the competitors to the Adobe juggernaut. And it’s great that Adobe’s customers can find an alternative that will solve their thorny iOS problems. But how in the world can Adobe think that this is an acceptable state of affairs?

I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for some time, but I was prompted into action by a series of tweets by comics artist Jen Bartel over the weekend. Bartel is a Creative Cloud subscriber who loves the brushes by Kyle Webster that are an Adobe exclusive and therefore only available on iOS as a part of Adobe Sketch. And yet she still finds Adobe’s iOS efforts wanting, declaring that Adobe Sketch is simply “meh” for her work. It took the arrival of Clip Studio Paint to get her sketching again on her iPad with the Apple Pencil.

Here’s the thing, though: Bartel, despite clearly not wanting to use Windows, has been using a Wacom MobileStudioPro 16. Why? Because it runs Photoshop CC, which allows her to create finished work that she feels she’s unable to create on iOS.1 Her loyalty to her Photoshop workflow pushed her to the MSP, even though the iPad “wins in every hardware category and is better for couch drawing.” (For what it’s worth, she says that neither experience can match a full-fledged computer with a Wacom Cintiq tablet attached.)

It’s great that there are alternatives like Affinity Photo and Clip Studio and Procreate, so that iOS users can get work done despite Adobe’s lackluster efforts. But it’s frustrating that Adobe has failed its core design customers to such a degree—and it’s also a big risk for Adobe. Photoshop commands a lot of space in the brains of many creative professionals, but a lot of those people want to use iOS. If Adobe provided them with fulfilling tools for iOS—ones that are as capable as what’s available on macOS and Windows—it could keep its customers loyal.

But the longer Adobe fails to provide, the more creative professionals will seek out alternatives. The gravitational pull of Photoshop will be reduced. Mental pathways will be retrained. And the once unthinkable—dumping Adobe’s products for alternatives across all devices—will suddenly become easy.2

It should never have come to this. Perhaps Adobe’s app strategy on iOS made sense for the early days of the App Store and the iPhone, but it doesn’t make sense anymore. The company needs to get on board with supporting its customers on the world’s best mobile platform—or risk losing them forever.

  1. Could she spend a bunch of time finding and learning different apps to get her to the same finished state on iOS? Maybe, but it’s potentially a huge time investment. 
  2. I haven’t even mentioned the people I’ve heard from who are frustrated that Adobe’s other pro apps, such as Illustrator, are also entirely missing in action on iOS. 

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