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Farewell FreeHand

I knew this day would come, but I honestly didn’t think it would take this long.

Earlier this week, Adobe’s John Nack, senior product manager of Adobe Photoshop, confirmed on his blog that my favorite drawing application, Macromedia FreeHand, is no longer being updated. It’s an Adobe Illustrator world, it has been for quite some time, and now the company is making it official. Adobe has written a migration FAQ (PDF, 180K) that explains some of the reasons for halting development.

FreeHand has followed an odd orbit around Adobe for its entire history. Originally created by Altsys, FreeHand was the main competitor for Adobe’s Illustrator. Aldus snapped up FreeHand from Altsys so that it could complement its page-layout application PageMaker, and eventually, in 1994, Adobe bought Aldus (see “Adobe + Aldus = Adobus?,” 1994-03-21).

That merger left FreeHand in an awkward position. As Adam presciently put it then, “The new company may find it difficult to market two such closely competing programs without in some way differentiating them. The companies have also used competition to push advances in interface and features, each attempting to leapfrog the other. Will that disappear once they’re on the same side?”

FreeHand then passed back to Altsys (which allowed Adobe to avoid any antitrust issues involving owning the two dominant illustration programs on the market), which was sold to Macromedia. Ultimately, in 2005, FreeHand found itself once again at Adobe’s door when Adobe acquired Macromedia (see “Adobe Swallows Macromedia,” 2005-04-25).

FreeHand and Illustrator inspired heated wars akin to the Mac versus PC flare-ups of the day: FreeHand was so obviously superior, with its elegant interface, why would anyone use clunky Illustrator?

You see what I mean.

In truth, FreeHand was the first application that made me realize that software preference can be a nature versus nurture experience. Both programs did roughly the same thing – drawing vector artwork – with mostly similar feature sets that occasionally leap-frogged each other. (I remember my friend Olav Martin Kvern pointing out in his book “Real World FreeHand” that FreeHand’s new zoom capabilities enabled artists to draw bacteria at actual size!)

But because I learned FreeHand first, aspects of Illustrator continue to drive me nuts. For example, even at version 13.0, Illustrator CS3 can’t create multiple pages within a document. One of my design clients recently needed some changes to a two-sided postcard that was created by another designer some time before it reached me. The card arrived as two Illustrator files that had to be tracked and edited separately. Although not a terrible hardship, it was annoying, yet not irritating enough to re-create the piece in a layout application such as InDesign.

Long-time Illustrator users would probably point out that it’s a drawing program, not a layout program, and I’m crazy to want one program to do everything. (But like most customers, I do want everything, I want it right now, and I’d really like it to be free. Is that really too much to ask?)

In fact, that’s a key reason Illustrator ultimately outlasted FreeHand. When Adobe began bundling Illustrator as part of the Creative Suite (which included Photoshop, InDesign, and GoLive at the time), it was hard for designers to justify paying for a separate application that did the same thing (see “Adobe Checks Into the Creative Suite,” 2003-09-29). The interoperability among the Adobe programs gave Illustrator a further competitive edge.

Although essentially retired, FreeHand will still be sold for some time, and technical and customer support will be provided. However, FreeHand runs only under Rosetta on Intel-based Macs and won’t be receiving any code updates, so buying a new copy now doesn’t seem to be a wise investment. Adobe is encouraging FreeHand users to move to Illustrator by offering a $200 upgrade to Illustrator CS3 and providing resources for switching.

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