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TUAW Interview: The Pixelmator Team

Mat Lu

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As we mentioned last week, one of the most anticipated OS X applications in a long while finally hit the street when Pixelmator shipped version 1.0. We were fortunate enough to get the two brothers behind the application, Saulius (right) and Aidas Dailide, to contribute our latest TUAW Interview. In terms of their relative contribution to Pixelmator, Saulius is more focused on the UI, while Aidas provides most the heavy lifting on the back end. In this interview they discuss some of the thinking behind Pixelmator, where it came from, and what they are trying to accomplish.

Why did you write Pixelmator? What kind of user did you have in mind when you set out to develop it? Is there any kind of story behind the name?

Saulius: The main reason for writing Pixelmator is that back in January, the situation in the Mac market was such that the only image editing tool that really did its job was Photoshop. ChocoFlop, Gimp, and Seashore tried to do something with image editing, but they all failed. I am sure that ChocoFlop and Seashore were just experiments -- developers do not pay much attention to those projects. As for Gimp, it was never intended to be a Mac OS X-only application, so it was all wrong from its start. (It is good for Windows, though.)

We wanted to have that little real-OS X app to edit our images.

We dreamed about having such an app for a long time, and we were sure that something like this was already in the works by some developers. But then we realized that even if it were in the works, did that mean that they would build exactly what we dreamed about? The answer was "probably not." And we were right.

Aidas: Another reason to start the development of Pixelmator was Mac OS X. The truth is that Mac OS X was built exclusively for image-editing applications. We were pretty surprised by many things about what Mac OS X could do, once we started working on Pixelmator.

With Pixelmator, we wanted to bring at least some of the Mac fun to image editing, and we successfully started doing that... and with such superior OS X technologies.

The user whom we had in mind once we started to work on Pixelmator was a 1) Mac OS X fan, 2) one who does not need as many features for image editing as Big Brother has, 3) one who needs more image-editing tools than iPhoto has, and 4) one who is a pro-user who wants to do some basic editing fast without having to wait for some big app to start.

As for Pixelmator's name, we thought a lot about it. We had three names, but we liked this one a lot because it is between serious and fun. Even more, there were zero results for "pixelmator" in a Google search in February.

What were some of the biggest challenges in developing Pixelmator? Your website says that Pixelmator is based on the open source ImageMagick project. Why did you choose to build off of ImageMagick? How much of Pixelmator's functionality comes from IM, and how much of it is genuinely new?

Aidas: This whole project was and still is a big challenge itself. Planning and development were really difficult tasks. With a ridiculously small team we were able to develop an application that even large companies wouldn't dare to. Since I am more into technologies, it was quite a challenge to bring all of those technologies together and see the whole picture instead of single, small parts.

ImageMagick is a great project with a long history. It started before I even knew that computers existed. The task that it does very well is image reading. It can read virtually any image format, and since you never know which format you might need, we decided that it's a good idea to support them all. Apart from reading and writing images, we use it as backend for some core functions in Pixelmator. However, this is going to change soon, since we want to clear the way for some very interesting and advanced technologies.

Probably the first thing everyone notices about Pixelmator is the translucent "heads-up display" interface. Why did you make everything, not just palettes, but even document windows, in the HUD style? Is it just because it looks good or do you think the interface has a functional purpose? Along the same lines, do you see Pixelmator as being part of what has been labeled the "Delicious Generation"?

Saulius: Pixelmator is an application built not only for today. We made it, thinking a lot about its future. I think that it is obvious that its palettes are the best fit for image editing.

As for the document windows, unfortunately, I can't tell you details, but believe me: It is not just because it looks good -- there is a very cool and practical feature in the works that has to do with that window transparency.

We are very happy when someone calls Pixelmator a "Delicious Generation" app... of course, unless that means pretty but not useful. Pixelmator is very useful, and at the same time, the UI is very important. I think that developers who suggest that a nice or new UI is not as important as the code are wrong, and Windows applications are a good example of that.

Your tag line is "image editing for the rest of us," yet Pixelmator still has a huge number of tools, palettes, filters, etc. What is it about Pixelmator that makes you characterize it as easier to use than some of the other image editors out there?

Saulius: Yes; a very good question. The secret with Pixelmator is that complex tools or options are hidden and only available when you need them. Even if you don't know a thing about image editing, you just need to start the app and click any of the tools that I am sure many are aware of in one way or another. And then, once you play a bit with that basic stuff, you can try creating more complex things by getting deeper into the application. Our goal was to hide more complex tools and to show basic stuff.

In other words, when using Pixelmator, you do not see any additional stuff that you do not want to use.

Also, all of those Pixelmator palettes and tools are really easy to use. If you take a look at the brushes or gradients palettes... those have just one button! Or, if you need to add some custom brush to your palette, you don't need to look for any menu or submenu item-you just drag any picture from your desktop to the brushes palette and that's it. It's the same with adding layers to your composition.

Pixelmator is a very easy-to-use and yet powerful application.

Pixelmator comes to market about the same time as another Core Image/GPU driven image editor, Acorn. Do you have any thoughts about Acorn?

Aidas: It's really hard to compare Acorn with Pixelmator. Idea, design decisions, implementation -- the two applications have fundamental differences. The only similar things are that both run on Mac OS X and both use Core Image in one way or another.

What about Photoshop? Do you see Pixelmator, ultimately, giving Photoshop a run for its money. Are you intending Pixelmator, in the long run, to be a full-fledged competitor to Photoshop? What are your thoughts about Photoshop Elements (which we just learned will be delayed until 2008)?

Saulius: Our task is to build not the average image editor but the best image editor for Mac OS X. Because we are on track to do that, it will definitely give Photoshop a run for its money -- unless Adobe does not care about Mac OS X.

And because we were crazy enough to start Pixelmator, it seems that we will be able to be a competitor for Photoshop in some way -- especially if you look at what we already were able to do in nine months with our ridiculous budget.

Talking about Photoshop Elements today: It is just another Windows app. I would be very surprised to see anyone who uses Mac for more than two years in any way interested in Photoshop Elements. When you look at Photoshop, you know that it is for professional designers, but when you look at Photoshop Elements, you don't really know whom it is for... it is too complicated/ugly for the average user. I guess Photoshop Elements is more about marketing than the actual product and its value to the user.

Obviously Pixelmator can't have every feature out of the gate, but there are some very popular tools that it's missing at this time. Are we going to see some sort of analog to the "healing brush" and the history palette in Photoshop?

Aidas: I don't want to promise anything, but with current technology, we can add a Core Image-based tool in a few hours. The healing brush is a combination of some filters that already exist in Core Image and some that don't. However, there are some other things that we want and must do first. Time is our enemy, though.

I know you're reticent about making promises, but are there any specific features that are on the front burner and will make it into Pixelmator in the near future?

Saulius: We use code names for announcing features, but I really wouldn't want to promise anything until it's done. Anyway, our first task is to take advantage of Leopard technologies with Pixelmator 1.1 Kitten. Other free updates that we are to see before the end of this year are named Draftsman and Spider. You can get an idea about what those updates are about. Having code names is fun. :)

Basically, other things that we want in Pixelmator are more precision, better overall workflow, something for the web, better performance, and lots of non-destructive editing.

Does Pixelmator have any kind of built-in support for third-party extension or plugins? Do you expect/hope for third-party additions?

Aidas: Yes, it does, but this feature is temporarily disabled. We are [planning] to support third-party Core Image units and Quartz Composer compositions.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Saulius: I don't have much time to write an article on our weblog, so I will take a chance and tell you how Pixelmator is doing today. First, we are very happy about the feedback for Pixelmator. People just love it. We still have hundreds of e-mails waiting in queue for our reply.

Also, Pixelmator made $60,000 the first day, and sales are still outstanding. So, our budget for future versions is not as ridiculous as it was before.

Right now, we are working on v1.0.1, which will bring critical bug fixes and some improvements. It should be out soon.

Thanks to Saulius and Aidas for taking the time to talk with us and best of luck to them with Pixelmator.

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