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Review: Adobe’s Ink and Slide Are Great Hardware Which Need Great Apps

The software for these high-end iPad art tools feels like rough drafts

Adobe Ink and Slide

People who are serious about software should make their own hardware.

When that famous declaration by Alan Kay gets quoted, it’s usually in reference to ambitious computing devices such as Apple’s iPhone or Microsoft’s Surface. But after more than three decades in the graphics software business, Adobe is finally taking Kay’s advice–and the hardware that it’s built is a pressure-sensitive pen and a unique digital ruler, both for use with new Adobe apps for the iPad.

When the company first showed off prototypes of its pen and ruler more than a year ago, it gave them the code names Project Mighty and Napoleon, respectively. Today, the final versions go on sale as Adobe Ink and Slide. They work with two new Adobe drawing apps for the iPad, Line and Sketch–both of which are free and can be used with or without the new hardware. (Adobe provided me with pre-release versions of the hardware and software, and loaned me an iPad to use with them.)

Adobe is selling Ink and Slide as a set, at an intimidating price: $200. You don’t need to spend anything like that to get a solid iPad stylus. (One of my favorites goes for $35.) But Adobe isn’t being completely irrational: Other pressure-sensitive styli sell for up to $120 on their own, no equivalent to Slide included. Still, it’s a lot of money–and I think that more than a few folks will be disappointed that the company isn’t offering Ink in stand-alone form at a lower price.

The good news is that both gadgets feel like the high-end iPad accoutrements they are. Adobe may be new to hardware, but it’s crafted Ink and Slide out of aluminum and sweated the details.

Adobe SketchAt first blush, Ink’s striking looks–its barrel is a twisted triangle–seem like they might favor form over function. Actually, the pen fits beautifully in the hand. Many iPad styli are too stubby or too thick; this one is just right, and it’s perfectly balanced.

What matters even more than the shape of an iPad stylus’s barrel is the shape of its tip. The iPad was designed to work with fingertips, not pen points; as a result, most styli have large, mushy tips, leaving using them feeling a bit like drawing with a tiny water balloon. You can learn to do it, but it’s not fun.

Adobe, however, gave Ink a tip which uses Pixelpoint, a technology created by a startup called Adonit, which also uses it in some of its own styli. Thanks to Pixelpoint, Ink’s point is truly pointy. It’s also pressure sensitive, letting you draw with pencil and pen tools in Line and Sketch which lay down thicker, darker lines if you press harder. Drawing with it feels more like using a real pencil, pen, or brush than with any other iPad stylus I’ve tried.

Adobe InkRather than taking a AAA battery like some pressure-sensitive iPad styli, Ink comes with a charging tube which doubles as a carrying case. Stick Ink in the tube, pop on the lid and connect a USB cable, and you can charge it up for up to eight hours of continuous drawing.

Ink is an ambitious new product in an existing category. Slide, by contrast, is something altogether new. Used with Ink and the Line or Sketch app, it lets you lay down lines and shapes with precision, letting you mix purely freehand art with elements you positioned and rendered with the help of Slide.

The gizmo is a little aluminum-topped bar, around 4 inches long, on two dinky legs. Even though it doesn’t require a battery, the iPad notices when you’ve plopped it down on the screen. In both Line and Sketch, you can move Slide around to arrange an on-screen line, circle, square or triangle–you cycle between multiple choices by pushing a button on the device–and then size it to your liking and trace it with the stylus to get a shape which simultaneously looks perfect and if it were drawn by hand.

Adobe LineThe Line app provides a bevy of additional shapes which you can position with Slide, such as french curves, trees, various people and animals, and even Herman Miller furniture. It also has a simple 3D-assist mode which helps you with perspective as you lay down lines in a drawing.

Slide is ingenious all by itself, but Adobe did another ingenious thing: It built a virtual version of the hardware into the Line and Sketch apps. Rather than sliding Slide around on your tablet’s display, you can drag around a couple of on-screen circles to position lines and shapes, then trace them with the Ink stylus. It’s a very satisfactory substitute for the Slide device, which makes it all the more of a shame that there’s no way to buy Ink by itself.

Adobe Line

Adobe Line

The virtual Slide is only one of plenty of creative features in the Line app (which emphasizes precision) and Sketch app (which skews more towards freehand drawing). They have features such as integration with Adobe’s Behance, a social network for artists who like to show off their work; and Kuler, a way to share color palettes.

But for all the ways in which Line and Sketch are nice, they feel unfinished. They’re also needlessly inconsistent with each other. And though these apps are free–and Adobe says that it intends to release updates with improvements based on feedback from users–they’re the key to unlocking the potential of the $200 Ink and Slide hardware. So their limitations are a problem.

A few examples:

  • Even though Line and Sketch have very similar toolboxes which let you choose an art utensil and a color, Line places its version at the bottom of the screen, and Sketch puts it at the top.
  • Line lets you customize the size and opacity of its drawing tools; Sketch does not, which limits the variety of effects you can get out of it.
  • Both apps are designed to work with an iPad held in landscape orientation; their interfaces don’t rotate into portrait mode, and the lines I drew in portrait orientation looked like they emerged from a spot off to the left of the pen tip.
  • Neither app offers the ability to create drawings with multiple layers, as you can in such graphics packages as Photoshop. You can import an image from the iPad’s Camera Roll and trace over it, but the two apps handle this task with different interfaces.
  • Both feature palm rejection, a technology designed to let you touch your palm to the tablet’s screen as you draw without unwittingly creating a line, triggering an action or otherwise interfering with your drawing. But like all forms of iPad palm rejection I’ve tried, Adobe’s version isn’t very dependable. And southpaws beware: In Line, there’s a little on-screen button which temporarily disables palm rejection so you can perform gestures such as pinch-to-zoom. It sits on the left side of the screen–where I kept accidentally brushing it with my palm and messing up my work.
Cat Drawing

Adobe Line

After using both Line and Sketch extensively, I found I liked Line better for the sort of precision drawing it’s designed for and for freehand sketching. Which brings up a question: Why does Sketch exist at all? Adobe says that it created two separate apps to avoid feature bloat; it’s a noble-sounding goal, but most of the few unique features which Sketch has could be folded into Line without overloading it.

Ultimately, of course, what you really want is for Ink and Slide to work in any iPad app which might benefit from them–including excellent non-Adobe offerings such as Paper, Procreate, and Sketchbook Pro. Adobe says it’s planning to open up Ink and Slide so that other companies which develop graphics software can enable the hardware in their apps. Whether they will choose to do so remains to be seen–especially since Adobe’s Ink competes with multiple other high-end styli which require their own special software support, such as Pogo Connect, FiftyThree’s Pencil, and Adonit’s Jot Touch.

The bottom line on Ink and Slide: They’re impressive, polished pieces of hardware already, but they’ll be far more compelling if Adobe beefs up Ink and Slide and third-party app developers support the devices. Spending $200 on them right now is a major investment in a vision in progress. But it’s an awfully exciting vision–and if it comes to pass, it’s going to be a boon for iPad art and the people who create it.

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In Which I Bid Flash Adieu

For awhile now, I’ve been battling some maddeningly persistent, mysterious technical gremlins that have infested my MacBook Air. The machine would work just great. Then, without warning, it would get miserably slow–the cursor would turn into a spinning beach ball, apps would refuse to respond either briefly or until I rebooted, and the fan would go on full-blast.

I repaired the solid-state disk using Apple’s Disk Utility. I cleared my caches. I blamed my browser and switched to another one. (At various points, I’ve used Safari, Chrome, and, most recently, Firefox as my primary browser.) Some of these tactics seemed to help–emphasis on “seemed”–but they didn’t resolve the situation permanently.

When the Mac was in one of its moods, it was no fun at all. That’s one reason why I’ve found myself using my iPad 2 (equipped with a Zagg keyboard) more often than the Air over the past three months. But I never stopped wanting the Mac to work better.

Then it struck me. The iPad, unlike any Mac or Windows PC I’ve ever used, is pretty much bulletproof. It doesn’t get bogged down. It has no equivalent of the spinning beach ball. Even its worst technical problems can almost always be fixed by powering it down.

And–in case you hadn’t heard–it doesn’t run Adobe’s Flash. New Macs don’t come with Flash, but I reflexively installed it on mine.

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Still More on Mobile Flash

If you’re not sick of thinking about the end of Flash on mobile devices already, people are still writing stuff about it that’s worth reading:

Adobe’s Mike Chambers gives several reasons for mobile Flash’s death, but the first he mentions is Apple’s rejection of it:

This one should be pretty apparent, but given the fragmentation of the mobile market, and the fact that one of the leading mobile platforms (Apple’s iOS) was not going to allow the Flash Player in the browser, the Flash Player was not on track to reach anywhere near the ubiquity of the Flash Player on desktops.

And Mobile Opportunity’s Michael Mace–thoughtful as always–says that greed did Flash in:

So here’s what Adobe did to itself:  By mismanaging the move to full mobile browsing, it demonstrated that customers were willing to live with a mobile browser that could not display Flash.  Then, by declaring its intent to take over the mobile platform world, Adobe alarmed the other platform companies, especially Apple.  This gave them both the opportunity and the incentive to crush mobile Flash.

I agree that there were a bunch of reasons why mobile Flash never amounted to anything, but I still think one of them trumps all others: It didn’t work. If it had been fabulous, even Apple might have had to reconsider the situation.

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Adobe: The Optimist’s View

Dan Frommer of SplatF weighs in on the death of mobile Flash–and thinks that Adobe is in okay shape overall:

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen isn’t a magician, but he’s proving that he’s not a dummy. Today, Adobe — in theory — has a plan. And now it’s time to deliver.

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Flash’s Fate: Blame Microsoft, Not Apple

Commenter Ridd make a good point about Flash over at this story by Erica Ogg on why mobile Flash failed:

The real reason why Adobe is dropping Flash mobile support is not iPhone. It is Windows 8.

Microsoft made it very clear that they won’t allow Flash to run in Windows 8 Metro browser and they are pushing HTML5 as a platform. You do not need a crystal ball to see that without Windows’ (which runs on 95% of PCs worldwide) support, Flash is dead. It will be supported for legacy reasons for a while, but it has no future.

Windows 8 isn’t a mobile operating system–it’s an OS that aims to run well on both mobile devices and garden-variety, traditional computers. If its browser doesn’t support Flash–or any plug-in, how much longer will Flash in any form live on?

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The Long National Mobile Flash Nightmare is Over

So it’s official: Adobe is ceasing development of Flash Player for phones and tablets:

Over the past two years, we’ve delivered Flash Player for mobile browsers and brought the full expressiveness of the web to many mobile devices.

However, HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively.  This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms. We are excited about this, and will continue our work with key players in the HTML community, including Google, Apple, Microsoft and RIM, to drive HTML5 innovation they can use to advance their mobile browsers.

Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores.  We will no longer continue to develop Flash Player in the browser to work with new mobile device configurations (chipset, browser, OS version, etc.) following the upcoming release of Flash Player 11.1 for Android and BlackBerry PlayBook.  We will of course continue to provide critical bug fixes and security updates for existing device configurations.  We will also allow our source code licensees to continue working on and release their own implementations.

Yup, Adobe–the company that has been maintaining that the Web isn’t really the Web without Flash–just said that HTML5 is “the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms.” That’s true. I didn’t expect it to concede the point just yet, but I’m glad it did.

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For Adobe, Edge Represents Opportunity, Not Surrender

“Adobe Quietly Surrenders to Steve Jobs, Builds Flash Alternative.” That’s the headline on Adam Clark Estes’s article over at the Atlantic on Edge, Adobe’s new HTML5 authoring tool. It captures the tone of a lot of coverage I’ve seen. Edge supposedly represents a capitulation on Adobe’s part. And it’s supposedly a product that Adobe might never have come up with if Steve Jobs hadn’t kept Flash off of the iPhone and iPad and been bluntly public about his reasoning.

Well, maybe. It’s true that the inability of Flash to run natively on iOS gives Adobe a powerful incentive to get on the HTML5 bandwagon. I tend to think, however, that this take gives Apple too much credit, and Adobe too little. Edge isn’t about Adobe bowing to Steve Jobs; it’s about it acknowledging reality. And Adobe shouldn’t be building this product in a grudging, grumbly fashion. If Edge is a great HTML5 tool, there’s no reason why it can’t be an enormously popular and profitable component of the company’s portfolio. It would be nuts for Adobe not to do it.

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With Edge, Adobe Preps Itself for the HTML5 Future

Adobe may be in no hurry to wind down its huge, aging, sometimes frustrating business built around Flash, but it isn’t dumb. It’s obvious that the future of rich Web sites–especially on phones and tablets–is about HTML5. And therefore it’s practically mandatory that Adobe release an application that lets creative types build such sites–a program that can join Flash, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and other Adobe products as a standard part of the world’s design toolbox.

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In the Tech Industry, Management Change Comes Slowly

Reuters’ Alastair Sharp has published a story saying that some investors are wondering whether it’s time for a change at the top of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, which is led by Mike Lazaridis (who founded the company in 1984) and Jim Balsillie (who’s been co-CEO since 1992). Sharp’s piece follows a flurry of debate last week about the future of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s president and CEO, who’s been with the company since 1980 and has been CEO since 2000.

I’m not making any predictions about what’s going to happen at either company–except to note that lack of change is usually a more likely outcome than change in these situations, at least in the short term. But the stories got me thinking about the durability of many of the top executives in tech companies. I decided to graph out the management of a few major corporations.

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Adobe Beefs Up Acrobat.com’s SendNow

Adobe’s Acrobat.com services don’t have a very high profile–and many don’t have much to do with Acrobat or PDF–but they include some good stuff. There’s Adobe Connect, a Web-conferencing service a la WebEx or GoToMeeting which is among the most painless products of its type, and available in a basic version that’s free. There’s Buzzword, a simple but extremely good-looking browser-based word processor. And there’s a bunch of other features, including SendNow , a system for sending large files that competes with YouSendIt and its many rivals. (It too has a free basic version–which lets you transfer files up to 100MB in size–and paid tiers which offer more capacity and additional features.)

SendNow's upcoming branding feature.

Last week, the company announced some new SendNow features. The service, which has been focused on graphics and business-document file formats, now supports major audio and video formats as well. In June, it’ll give companies the ability to apply their own branding to the SendNow service, so their logo appears on the pages that people see when they download files. And it says that in the third quarter of this year–ie, sometime in July, August, or September–it’ll use Adobe Air to provide a SendNow app that lets you use the service from your desktop rather than a browser.

Do you use a big-file transfer services If so, which one, and do you recommend it?