One of the most important recent developments in consumer technology has been the dramatic improvement in Web-based applications. These are software programs that aren’t installed on your own PC, but live on a company’s server and are accessed using a Web browser.
Such Web-based software has existed for years, but it was clumsy, slow and simplistic — no match for locally installed software. Common techniques, such as dragging items around the screen, were impossible. Seeing the results of an action often required the Web page to reload.
Now, developers are churning out Web-based applications that are so fast, rich and smooth they can hardly be distinguished from standard programs. And because they live online, these Web applications can be constantly updated; can run on both Windows and Mac computers; and can be easily integrated with other Web sites and services.
One of the best examples of these slick new Web-based application is Picnik, a sophisticated, photo-editing application offered free of charge at picnik.com. I have been testing Picnik and I like it a lot. It’s a fast and impressive program for tweaking and improving your photos, then posting them to popular photo Web sites, saving them to your own computer, emailing them, or even printing them.
Picnik, which comes from a small Seattle company called Bitnik, isn’t meant to compete with Adobe Photoshop, or to serve professional photographers or dedicated hobbyists. Instead, it’s for the same casual photographer who would use the limited editing tools in Apple’s iPhoto or Microsoft’s Windows Vista Photo Gallery.
Picnik isn’t a place to store your pictures, or a way to organize them — yet. The company says it will consider adding these features down the road. For now, it is focused on being an editing complement to popular Web services — such as Yahoo’s Flickr, Google’s Picasa Web Albums, and the independent Facebook — that already allow for storing and organizing photos. You could also easily use it as the main editor for photos you store on your hard disk.
The program is currently in beta, or test, phase, though in my tests it worked smoothly and surely. During this beta period, all of its features are offered for free. Later this summer, the company expects to end the beta period and begin charging something like $20 or $25 a year for access to some of the more rarified special effects that Picnik offers, though the core editing and sharing functions, and some of the effects, will remain free.
In my view, Picnik has a beautiful and responsive user interface that worked perfectly on the multiple Windows and Macintosh computers I used to test it. It worked equally well in the latest versions of the three best-known Web browsers: Microsoft’s Windows-only Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox (on both Windows and Mac) and Apple’s Safari (on both Mac and Windows.)
Picnik uses a simple tabbed interface across the top to navigate among its major functions. Edits and changes are previewed in real time, instantly, without the need for a page refresh or reload. Actions are confirmed with translucent messages that pop up on the screen and fade gracefully.
Any edit or special effect can be undone or redone instantly, all the way back to the original version of the picture, which Picnik retains on its servers during the editing process.
For example, you can zoom in or zoom out on a picture with a slider that works just as it would in a local program — the effect is immediate, with no jerkiness. If you wish to crop a picture, a pane representing the region to be included in the crop is superimposed on the photo. Everything inside the pane is sharp and clear, and everything else is faded a bit. This pane can be dragged, or resized, in real time.
Another example: If you want to tint a picture, the program shows you a color palette with a white dot you can move around the palette to pick your tint. As you do this, or move a slider that controls the intensity of the tint, the changes are instantly previewed in the picture.
None of this is unusual for a standard photo program installed on your computer, but it is impressive to see these effects happen so quickly and interactively in a program functioning over an Internet connection.
Picnik’s makers have struck partnerships with Flickr, Picasa and Facebook, and you can easily fetch pictures from these sites and post new pictures or edited versions of the originals back to the sites. You don’t need to switch to the sites themselves, they appear inside the Picnik Web page.
You can also upload pictures for editing from any other Web site, or from your hard disk, and you can email pictures to friends or to a wide variety of other sites, such as PhotoBucket, SmugMug and Snapfish.
The designers of Picnik have done such an elegant job that I wish the site would allow storage of photos, or organization of photos across your multiple online accounts and your hard disk. If you want to see how good a Web application can be, take Picnik for a spin.