Photo editing: why was it not sans Serif?

One of the most enduring images from one of the greatest movies is that of Jack Nicholson’s character in Miloš Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, post-lobotomy, staring blankly “just like one of those store dummies”, immediately before he is smothered by a pillow.

Lobotomy may not be a mandatory step in corporate growth, but there certainly comes a point beyond which a company changes, becoming more ponderous, less imaginative, and more stultified.

Given the frequently-voiced demand by many users for good, sensibly-priced apps to process their photos, it should be surprising that neither Apple nor Adobe rose to meet that demand. However their recent track record, and current position in the corporate life-cycle, makes it appear almost inevitable.

It took a relatively tiny British software developer, Serif, to produce the first product which is a serious alternative to Photoshop, as I have already announced. With less than 200 on its payroll at its Nottingham, England, headquarters, Serif (Europe) Ltd had already brought a successful suite of Windows apps to market, encompassing page layout (PagePlus), graphics (DrawPlus), web design (WebPlus), movies (MoviePlus), photo processing (PhotoPlus) and more.

Mac users now have Serif’s Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo, and next year should enjoy Affinity Publisher, its page layout app.

Meanwhile Apple brought us Aperture, which was a very pleasant lightbox and library app, but failed to develop into anything more capable, and was finally killed in October 2014, after just nine years on the market. Its more limited iPhoto app, which had been attempting to serve the consumer market since 2002, was finally replaced by Photos in April 2015. Neither has made any serious attempt to provide potent tools for processing and editing photos, or to encroach on Adobe’s increasingly captive markets.

Adobe’s Photoshop, once a youthful giant but now sprawling well beyond middle-age, switched from its previous conventional licence (in CS6) to the new Creative Cloud branding and costly subscription in June 2013. Its alternatives for photo editing remain Photoshop Lightroom (the Aperture killer) and Photoshop Elements, both of which have been carefully controlled to ensure that they do not compete with Photoshop itself. For many Photoshop Elements was just too cut-down and impotent, but Photoshop CC too vast and costly.

Serif has the same agility and inventiveness that we enjoyed of Apple when it came up with the apps later spun out to Claris, particularly Claris CAD and FileMaker Pro, or its iWork suite of Pages, Keynote and Numbers a decade ago.

It is very good for Serif that heavyweights like Apple and Adobe are too preoccupied elsewhere to try to meet what I think is substantial user demand.

It also brings back that awful image of Jack Nicholson, all his former fight and fire burned out by surgery.