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Adobe Releases Universal Binary Beta of Photoshop CS3

Adobe Systems rarely releases public betas, which made the announcement last week that it would let anyone test Photoshop CS3, the company’s flagship image-editing program, even more remarkable. The download is a universal binary, the first public appearance of any core graphics application from Adobe that natively supports Intel-based Macs. A Windows beta is also available. The full Creative Suite 3 (CS3) is expected to ship in the second quarter of 2007 for Mac and Windows, with all applications available as universal binaries under Mac OS X.

Downloading the beta requires an Adobe ID, which is free, and you may already have one (and forgotten about it, as I do every time). The beta can be used for only two days after download unless you obtain a serial number for further testing by visiting a special URL and providing an existing serial number for Photoshop CS2, Creative Suite 2, Production Studio, Adobe Web Bundle, or Adobe Video Bundle. Adobe notes that any copy of those programs in any language will qualify, even though the public beta provides just the English language version.

The Mac download is 685 MB; the Windows download is 337 MB. System requirements are Mac OS X 10.4.8 running on a computer with a PowerPC G4 or G5 processor or an Intel processor; PC users need Windows XP SP2 or Vista.

Photoshop is a computationally intensive program, and while Photoshop CS2 runs at a reasonable pace using the Rosetta translation mode with Intel Macs, professional users have been eagerly awaiting a native version that should boost speed on any Mac Pro far above any Power Mac G5. Of course, this requires optimization for the new platform, and that’s part of what a beta (public or private) is all about. Often, code is still being optimized for speed during beta testing cycles, which can frustrate users who might not expect crashes and unusual slowness in some parts of a program, while seeing huge increases in speed with other features.

The release of this public beta has a few different meanings for those of us who read the tea leaves.

First, the Photoshop team is probably ahead of other product teams in the Creative Suite development cycle. Three years ago, Adobe tied together its core programs (InDesign, Illustrator, Acrobat, and GoLive), increasing the average time between major updates, but also providing better bundled prices and a predictable budget item.

But the Creative Suite also means that all development teams are yoked to the same harness. This was particularly disastrous for GoLive, a program that I have written books about and been particularly intimate with for several years. In Macworld, I gave the CS2 release two mice for crashes, flaws, and missing features, while other reviewers gave 4 or 4.5 mice to the other major programs in the CS2 suite. Six months passed before a maintenance update fixed many of GoLive CS2’s problems. (GoLive has been designated a non-starter in CS3, being dropped to get its own separate identity – perhaps as a revised entry-level Web design program; Dreamweaver will take its place. See “GoLive Booted from Adobe Creative Suite, Acrobat 8 Released,” 2006-09-18.)

In this case, the public beta program is a signal that Photoshop is right on schedule.

Second, this public beta is a market signal so that serious users and corporate buyers can expect not just an on-time release of CS3, but one that’s worth buying. It means that Intel-based Mac purchases that may have been on hold for designers and production artists, or by individuals including yours truly, may be given the go-ahead. Opening the doors to people who were primarily Adobe graphics tool users could significantly boost Apple’s sales in the first half of 2007.

Third, the beta release reduces the impression that Photoshop CS3 is vaporware. Adobe has done a good job with its initial CS and subsequent CS2 release in anticipating the date they would ship and hitting it closely. By producing a public beta of Photoshop CS3, they tell their customers and the stock market that good things are coming without having to commit to specific dates.

As a dilettante Photoshop user and one who hasn’t yet purchased an Intel-based Mac for myself, I’m also fascinated to see what new features will emerge; early reports show that this version could offer much more flexibility in non-destructive editing – a key feature in Apple’s more-focused Aperture editor – as well as a new interface approach.

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