Photoshop: The popular editing tool goes free on the Web

Adobe Systems' new Photoshop Express website hosts a basic version of its ubiquitous software that lets users edit and share digital images.

Adobe Systems launched a new photo-editing website Thursday that blends its popular Photoshop software with the ease and community of social networks.

Photoshop Express which is now open to everyone as a "beta" test version, strips away both the complexity and the price tag of the original Photoshop. This free web-based editor offers tools for one-click cropping, color adjusting, and sharing.

Express comes from an impressive software pedigree. After years of being the industry standard, Photoshop is already the colloquial verb for manipulating images. But Photoshop Express is a far cry from the $649 professional Photoshop CS3. And that's the point.

"It's not trying to be 'Photoshop Online,' " says Geoff Baum, Adobe's director of Express products. Express targets the casual consumer – those who love taking pictures, but probably don't know what SLR stands for (it's single-lens reflex, in case you were wondering).

This point-and-shoot crowd has posted billions of images to online photo-sharing and social-networking sites such as Flickr and Facebook. Adobe hopes to reel in these millions of users with easy photo-editing tools and ways to connect all their photo-sharing favorites.

Users can upload images from their computer or grab pictures they've already posted to Photobucket, Facebook, or Picasa. Pictures can then be sorted into albums, arranged as slideshows, lightly polished, and shared with the world.

Photoshop Express gives every user a unique URL for their portfolio and room for up to 2 gigabytes of images.

Adobe hopes to tweak the software and roll out a for-pay premium version in the next six to 12 months. The free edition will remain available, says Mr. Baum, but the premium pass could offer better tools and additional storage space.

Adobe plans to connect Photoshop Express to other photo-sharing sites. Baum says they are already working to let users plug into Flickr accounts – allowing for an easy flow of images to and from the popular photo site. That option should be available in a few weeks, he says.

Photoshop Express runs as a website, not an application. Therefore, it will work in any web browser and on every operating system. (It does require Flash 9 software, which is free.)

This is one of Adobe's first steps into the world of "cloud computing" – the idea of putting software and files on a distant server that users then access through the Internet. There are downsides to this new frontier. For example, Photoshop Express doesn't work without an Internet connection. So if a user is knocked offline, she losses access to her pictures.

On the flip side, since the images are stored remotely, they can be seen from any computer in the world (depending on user-privacy settings).

Since the program is hyped as both a photo-sharing and photo-editing site, Photoshop Express faces competition from two sides, says Amit Gupta, founder of the do-it-yourself enthusiast site

He says the two big editing contenders are Aviary, a suite of web-based image applications that are in private testing, and Picnik, which has already teamed up with Facebook, Flickr, and other popular photo-sharing sites.

"I kinda want to see the little guys win out," Mr. Gupta jokes. "But Express has a very professional and slick look to it. And the tools are possibly better than any of the others that I've seen."

As for the photo-sharing side, Adobe has cleared one major hurdle by letting users tap directly into their supposed competitors, says Ron Glaz, a research analyst for IDC, the technology-intelligence firm based in Framingham, Mass.

But hard-core Flickr users, for example, spend hours identifying their photos with captions, tags, even map coordinates. All of this investment makes switching services a potential nightmare, says Mr. Glaz. If Adobe wants to attract the millions of devoted Flickr fans, they'll need to make sure that this information stays intact as a picture slides to and from Photoshop Express.

Adobe also hopes that happy Photoshop Express users will become happy Adobe customers in the future. The company has won over professionals with the full Photoshop package and snatched hobbyists with its $99 Photoshop Elements, which is more powerful than Express. Now Adobe is vying for that last consumer segment – the snapshot set.

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