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Microsoft shows that it's serious about graphics with some impressive
new technology designed to combine the best of drawing and painting.
Ultimately, however, PhotoDraw is a case of two steps forward and one step
Whenever Microsoft moves into a new area of computing it tends to be bad news for the existing occupants. After establishing successive strangleholds on the WP, spreadsheet, database, business presentation and PIM markets, it looks as if it's now the turn for graphics. In fact with PhotoDraw 2000 Microsoft is even more ambitious aiming to swallow two industries in one go. PhotoDraw is built on a new concept of object-based images designed to break down the current distinction between bitmap and vector and offer the best of both. The aim is to provide a crossover solution that will be the only graphics program that the office user will ever need. So is it really time to throw away your existing drawing and photo-editing programs?
Not surprisingly Microsoft makes much of PhotoDraw's Office compatibility, stressing the familiarity and efficiency of working with similar menus, icons and so on. In fact handling graphics is so different from handling words and figures that such consistency proves virtually irrelevant. Fortunately Microsoft hasn't felt hide-bound by its own interface rules and has developed a very different and very effective working environment.
In the centre of the screen is the white picture area and around that a gray scratch area where elements can be stored ready for future use. Down the left hand side is the picture list showing thumbnails of all open images. Clicking on a thumbnail reveals the object list with selectable thumbnails of all image components. Down the right hand side is the work pane where objects are formatted and controlled. Running across the top of the screen is the new visual menu. This offers nine major options - text, cut/crop, templates, draw/paint, fill, outline, colour, touch-up and effects - and clicking on each reveals a drop-down list with further options to hone in on exactly what you want to do.
The strength of the interface is that it is very clean and transparent so that you can immediately find your way to the functionality you need. This is particularly important for beginners and occasional users and means that it's possible to start producing work with PhotoDraw immediately - especially as the multiple levels of undo encourage experimentation. On the other hand when you have explored the program more and want to push it to its limits, PhotoDraw is less successful. In particular the manual and help system are both heavily project-based with little hard information. Microsoft seems determined to act as if its radical object-based approach is so natural that it is self-explanatory. It's not and users used to current ways of working need to be told more.
In terms of its functionality, Office users will immediately be familiar with PhotoDraw's drawing capabilities as these are largely based on the shared Office Draw module. As such you can draw freehand on the image or add any of the 198 autoshapes from basic polygons through to advanced flowchart symbols. Text can also be added, but here users are in for a big disappointment. Clicking on the text tool automatically adds a "your text here" object to the image. This can be edited and its typeface and point size changed with the work pane, but that's about all. With no control over text blocks or even justification or leading, PhotoDraw is only just capable of handling short sections of text.
At least, once the text and objects have been added they can be repositioned, rotated and resized easily and without loss of quality thanks to their object nature. It's also possible to arrange the objects to align them on each other, to change their stacking order and to group and ungroup them. The control is just about adequate, but for a modern program I'm surprised that there are no options for temporarily hiding layers or for distributing or combining objects.
PhotoDraw's drawing controls are workmanlike rather than state-of-the-art, but this begins to change with the formatting control on offer. At first this looks pathetic with a measly eight flat colours on offer in the default Fill work pane. If you dig a little deeper, however, you can select any colour in the current palette or mix your own RGB colour (though not CMYK). Dig further and you will find the really interesting options available from the drop-down list at the top of the work pane. This gives access to a range of multi-colour and 2-colour gradients and hundreds of bitmap-based tiled textures. Even better is the ability to set any image as a picture fill which enables advanced masking effects to be produced easily complete with control over image colorization and transparency.
Where PhotoDraw begins to move into a different league is in the control it offers over outlines. Again to begin with, this hardly looks cutting-edge with the ability to set the line width and colour and to choose between various double and dashed line presets. Again though the drop-down list at the top of the workpane offers further options and it is these that take PhotoDraw into completely new territory.
The first of these is the set of Artistic Brushes which offers a range of around sixty realistic natural media brush effects. Applying the outline simply involves draping the brush object along the full length of the stroke or outline. Suddenly rather than clearly computerised your stroke looks like it could have been produced with a palette knife dragging oils or with semi-transparent watercolours. The second option is the set of around seventy Photo Brushes. These work in a similar way to the artistic brushes, but rather than a single shape these repeat a bitmapped object along the length of the line. Apply a photo brush outline and it looks as if your line is made of rope, or the coils of a snake, or the flex of a phone.
It's hard to overstate the creative freedom these two options opens up. Suddenly you can create a naturalistic watercolour effect for your logo or create a photo-realistic ivy border around your Christmas card. Even better because the effects are object-based they are all editable. At any time you can change the colour, width and transparency of the stroke or change to another brush style completely. Using the Edit Points option you can even change the path the stroke follows and the brush effect will automatically be regenerated.
By combining the naturalism of bitmaps and the control of vectors, PhotoDraw's object approach does indeed seem to offer the best of both drawing and painting. However it's not all good news. The processing involved in producing the effect is clearly enormous and so time-consuming that it takes more than one pass for PhotoDraw to render it to the screen. Also after each object is added or stroke is drawn, it is automatically selected for manipulating so that to carry on drawing you have to go back and reselect your tool which is hardly an encouragement to spontaneity.
It looks like the obvious solution is to use PhotoDraw's paint tool instead. This works exactly like the draw tool but defaults to the artistic brushes and allows multiple strokes to be added one after the other. As such the end results can indeed be strikingly natural but the same can't be said about the process of creating them. Because of the way the strokes are built-up they cannot begin to be applied until you have finished drawing the stroke so that the only feedback you have while painting is a thin black line. Then when the stroke is finished you have to wait for it to be processed before it eventually appears. This is very different to the immediate response of painting in a bitmap program and markedly inferior. To be honest it doesn't really feel like painting at all.
PhotoDraw's drawing and painting capabilities are a mixed bag then, but what of its photo-editing capabilities? The program supports a huge range of bitmap formats such as JPG, TIF, GIF, PCD and PSD as well as a number of vector formats including CDR. Using the Visual Insert command the majority of supported formats can be viewed as thumbnails before being imported which makes dealing with multiple images much easier even though the thumbnail extraction is slow. In addition PhotoDraw supports scanners and digital cameras directly.
Once the photo appears in PhotoDraw it can be colour-corrected using the commands under the Colour option on the visual menu. The range of power includes controlling brightness, contrast, hue, saturation and colour balance plus options to invert an image's colours, convert them to grayscale or colorize them. Compared to a program like Photoshop with its precise management of tone maps, the level of control and feedback is limited but probably adequate for most business users.
A potential problem inherent in PhotoDraw's object-based approach is that while it is relatively simple to handle such colour corrections on a global basis, it becomes much more complex when you want to deal with separate selections in your bitmap. If you want to colour correct the sky in Photoshop, for example, you can simply click on a pixel with the magic wand tool to select an area of similar colour and all edits will only affect the resulting selection. Because PhotoDraw's object approach keeps you at one remove from the nitty-gritty pixel level, this ability to work directly with pixel-based selections isn't possible.
Microsoft's solution is ingenious but complex. Using the Cut/Crop menu's commands you can use the advanced Edge and Colour Finder options to isolate a selection of the bitmap and then convert it into an entirely new object which partially obscures the underlying photo. I have to admit I'm still in two minds as to whether this is just plastering over the hole or potentially an improvement on traditional methods. It certainly offers advantages with the most obvious being that if you group objects you can then create new cut-out objects based on all the elements in a picture. Compared to the precise pixel-level control offered by Photoshop's layers and masks, however, PhotoDraw's system seems crude.
PhotoDraw's object-based approach causes even more potential problems when you come down to the crucial level of local retouching. Again Microsoft has been at pains to provide solutions and workarounds. To begin with it has made it possible for each of the corrections available from the Colour visual menu to be painted onto the image locally. In addition, from the Touch Up visual menu it offers a number of dedicated bitmap-based tools such as the Clone, Smudge and Fix Red Eye brushes.
In many ways the power the object-based approach opens up is immense. In particular it means that all retouching effects can be applied to any and all objects in the image. This means, for example, that you could draw a line with the ivy photo brush and then go in and lighten and darken sections to make the effect more realistic. Alternatively you could take a layout made up of shapes, bitmaps and text and begin painting a random selection of the entire picture using the clone tool - and which you could then smear with the smudge tool!
This is impressive creative power, but to be truly useful it has to be practical. The problem is that the object-based system is just too slow to keep up so that usually all you see when you are retouching is the thin black line indicating where the effect will eventually be applied. This delay was irritating when painting, but is completely unworkable for retouching which depends on immediate feedback. The almost inevitable result is that the retouching effect you end up with isn't actually what you wanted. PhotoDraw seems to expect this and offers a Restore brush option to paint out the effect you've just applied. The problem of course is that this doesn't happen in real time either!
Ultimately the problems with painting and retouching mean that PhotoDraw can't yet claim to offer a complete solution. In particular it's clearly better to scan and prepare your photographs in a dedicated bitmap editor before bringing them into PhotoDraw for composing. When you have imported your corrected files, however, PhotoDraw's object-based approach becomes a strength offering you access to some serious power but especially to some unique creative options.
These creative possibilities are best demonstrated by the commands available under the Effects visual menu. These offer a whole host of possibilities from the relatively mundane, such as the ability to create drop shadows, through the relatively advanced, such as the ability to create fade effects as graduated transparencies, and ending up in some jaw-dropping power such as the control over 3D. When used with text objects in particular the 3D effects that can be produced with the controls over bevelling, extrusion, fills, lighting, camera and rotation are amazing. These aren't feeble extrusion-based 2.5D effects but fully-rendered photo-realistic objects that look like they've taken days to produce.
To have such 3D power in the middle of your image layout is impressive enough, but the PhotoDraw effects that completely knocked me for six are the Designer Effects. These are a range of over 200 mainly artistic filters presented as image thumbnails to give some impression of the effect they apply. Once you've selected the filter you want, you simply click on it and, if necessary, fine-tune it in a settings panel. If you don't like the effect simply click on another, but the chances are you won't need to. This is far and away the best set of artistic filters I've come across and the range, control and - most importantly - the end results put Photoshop to shame.
Again the beauty of PhotoDraw's object-based approach is that the designer effects can be applied equally to imported photos or to native shapes and text. The creative freedom this opens up is immense. Once you've created your report cover, for example, you could apply a unifying watercolour effect to the whole design. If you don't like it, why not try the charcoal or bubbles? An infinite range of attractive and consistent design effects are only a single click away.
Microsoft is well aware that this ability to instantly restyle and customise existing images is a huge strength and offers a range of simple line-based clip-art that is particularly well suited for such treatment. Not surprisingly Microsoft also takes the idea further by offering a range of templates which are effectively pre-supplied complete designs. These are grouped into just three main categories - cards, web and business graphics - but these are themselves divided so that the business graphics options offers various layouts for bulletins, logos and certificates amongst others.
Potentially this use of PhotoDraw to create publications for print could be very exciting as the creative possibilities the program could offer when designing a brochure, for example, are mouth-watering. At the moment though that's just not a realistic option for a number of reasons. To begin with the control over text is just not adequate but more fundamental is the lack of colour separation capabilities. As a result, while you can happily design your business stationery in PhotoDraw, you'll only be able to output it to your local desktop printer.
As PhotoDraw's own output capabilities aren't up to much, the most likely way you'll use the program is for creating images for use in other applications. To do this obviously you'll have to be able to write to a format that these applications can read. This is done with the Save For Use In. wizard which asks whether you intend to use the image on the web, in a publication or in an Office document or presentation. It then saves the image to the appropriate format: GIF or JPG for the Web, TIFF for commercial print, and PNG for use in the other office applications. Microsoft seems very excited about this wizard and the way it enables users without expert knowledge to make the right choices.
In fact the hype seems designed to hide a number of fundamental weaknesses. To begin with, because PhotoDraw makes all the decisions for you, you have no real control. When outputting to TIFF, for example, there is no way of changing the default - and inadequate - 150dpi resolution, while the options for controlling GIFs and JPGs are virtually non-existent. More fundamental still is the fact that there are no vector or metafile output options. As even the other Office applications can't read PhotoDraw's native MIX file format this means that the only way you can use PhotoDraw images is as bitmaps. In other words you immediately lose the pin-sharp output of text and the scalability without loss of quality that is the hallmark of vector and object graphics.
Ultimately, using PhotoDraw is a rollercoaster ride. One minute you are amazed at what the program can do, the next you are amazed at what it can't. So what's the final verdict? For the moment I have to say I feel slightly sorry for Microsoft. The technology underlying PhotoDraw is undoubtedly amazing, but that's not enough. It's no good taking two steps forward if you also take one step back. Advanced strengths don't make up for basic weaknesses especially for PhotoDraw's target audience. In particular there is no way that users are going to put up with a program where they spend most of their time looking at the progress indicator at the bottom of the screen. Expect to hear the howls of disappointment soon.
For the moment then there's no question of dispensing with your existing graphics applications to replace them all with PhotoDraw. In the long run, though, it's not surprising to find that Microsoft is actually sitting very pretty. The company is absolutely right that the average user doesn't care about vectors or bitmaps -they just want to be given the freedom to be creative. With its object technology, PhotoDraw goes a long way to deliver just that. Moreover the drawbacks that follow from the object-level approach aren't intrinsic and insurmountable they are simply processor-intensive and, as such, largely temporary.
When they see PhotoDraw no doubt Corel, Adobe and the other graphics software developers will all breathe a sigh of relief. They better not go to sleep though. In a few years time the combination of faster hardware and better software integration should mean that PhotoDraw 2002 will be well worth watching. The future certainly belongs to object-based graphics and it usually belongs to Microsoft.
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