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A quiet giant

Jasc Software is poised to dominate PC image editing software.

Nelson King and I recently had lunch with several representatives from Jasc Software, including CEO Kris Tufto. While I have met with these folks many times, it had been more than two years since our last meeting and I was beginning to wonder what was up. This was a company that released a new version of its popular (25 million users worldwide) Paint Shop Pro (PSP) application annually, but it hadn’t done anything in two years. Well, this meeting cleared up why: They went back to the drawing board to totally re-architect PSP, and will release version 8 next month. Naturally, it took twice as long to build the application from scratch than it would have to develop another incremental upgrade. And, based on the demo Nelson and I saw, this is no incremental upgrade.

Before I get to the demo, let me give you a little background. PSP was always the hobbyist’s choice on the PC platform, mostly because of its shareware roots and low cost. But frankly, the interface was a little clunky and it wasn’t as powerful for certain high-end functions as Photoshop. So serious graphic designers scoffed at it. Jasc’s insistence not to offer a Macintosh version lent credibility to those who turned their noses up at PSP, since many high-end designers will use no computer without the Apple logo.

Two years ago, the company saw a huge opportunity with the influx of new digital camera users. So it decided to develop a much easier-to-use suite of tools aimed at these folks. Rather than offer two separate product lines, however, it decided to start from scratch and redevelop PSP in a way that would be easy and powerful for newbies but appeal to the hard-core graphics users as well. This forced Jasc to develop PSP with a highly modular open-standards architecture. And the results are stunning.

Jasc recently released an all-new version of its complementary program, Photo Album 4, and the folks gave us a demo of that before the PSP demo. This is clearly aimed at Grandma and Grandpa who got a digital camera for Christmas and want to share, print, and archive pictures of their grandchildren. But it does everything ACDSee does with far less effort–easy editing, cropping, printing, and burning options. What’s really cool about this product is the integration with PSP. If Photo Album can’t rescue one of your shots, you can launch PSP from within Photo Album and do what would normally require Photoshop, Illustrator, Debabelizer, and Kai’s Power Tools to do.

Nelson King is reviewing PSP 8 as I write this, and his evaluation will appear in our June issue. All I want to do here is hit the highlights: new tools, scripting, and batch processing. Jasc has added a slew of new tools that make Photoshop look wimpy. For example, in Photoshop, there’s the counterintuitive tool called Unsharp Mask, which allows you to capture a figure from an image and put it in front of another background. Jasc’s answer looks like a drawing tool, and you just move around the figure and do in 20 seconds what would take four hours in Photoshop. In the demo, the Jasc representative captured a bicyclist from a complex background spokes and all in less time than it took me to sip my lemonade–and I had to catch myself to keep from spitting it all over the laptop. PSP allows infinite configuration of personalized toolbars full of tools as powerful and easy to use this one. An icon will set your toolbars to mimic Photoshop for those converting from the much pricier program.

For high-end users, it is hard to imagine a better scripting tool than what will ship with PSP 8. You can record all your actions as a new script and apply the same set of actions on other photographs in infinite variations. And if you really want to shake things up, you can go into the Python code and change the script manually. This is really handy for batch processing. Get a bunch of photos in that were shot in low light and apply the same set of filters to all of them, sequentially or in a line. Pause and playback the changes in particular images in the batch if subtle variations show up in the results. It’s like crafting a template that allows you to edit 100 images in the time it takes to edit one.

I could go on and on, but I will leave the rest of the details to Nelson’s review. At the lunch, I thought about how this program would help my own situation. My wife is a newbie and I’m a power user, but we both use the digital camera and are looking for ways to get more use out of it. Photo Album combined with PSP is the kind of thing that would satisfy both of us. The problem is, we’re Mac users, and nothing on the Macintosh side compares to these applications for power, ease of use, cost, and productivity. So at one point in the lunch I blurted out: “I guess you’re gonna drag me kicking and screaming into the PC world.” Nelson, with whom I’ve had an ongoing platform battle for years, just gave me a big grin and said, “I knew it was only a matter of time before the applications drew you in.” Who knew it would be Paint Shop Pro that clinched the platform change?

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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