Where Have All the Plugins Gone?

By Harald Heim
of The Plugin Site

Dateline: August 22, 2002
Volume 1, Number 1

Adobe recently released the Photoshop 7 SDK (Software Develelopment Kit) on their web site; or – to say this more exactly – restricted access to the new SDK and also removed the old SDKs. The Photoshop SDK is needed to create Photoshop plugins and up until now has been freely accessible to everyone. So what was considered an open software standard in the past, has now become a closed one.

Many questions arise from Adobe's decision. Did they do it to suppress competition? Was this the first step to seize complete hold of the plugin standard? Will there be fewer plugins available to users in the future? Before trying to answer such questions, it is necessary to first look back a bit.

The Plugin Success Story

Since the Photoshop Plugin architecture was considered a software standard in the past, mostly due to Adobe's mighty position in the graphics market, many manufacturers of image software were happy to make their applications support Photoshop plugins. Plugin developers just needed to create one plugin type to guarantee support for dozens of image applications. Users also appreciated being able to change applications without giving up their plugin collection and to use the same plugin in different applications. Users and developers benefited from having a single plugin standard and avoiding the chaos of individual plugin standards for every image application.

Adobe also profited from this. Many plugins introduced features that were either enhanced versions of existing Photoshop features or totally new functions. The enhancements and innovations that proved useful and successful were often later implemented in Photoshop in a more or less altered form. As a result, plugin developers had to be even more creative and come up with even more enhanced features and functionality.

However, it seems Adobe wasn't completely thrilled with the success of their plugin standard. With the growing number and popularity of Photoshop plugins, image applications supporting these plugins also became more attractive. On the other hand, plugin developers were eager to increase their market by making their plugins as compatible as possible with non-Adobe applications. The plugins which were only meant to work in Adobe software were also used in many competitive applications (If you can say that Photoshop actually has any serious competition – Ed.). So Adobe wasn't thrilled at having helped competitors and could hardly cheer when plugin developers made their plugins collaborate with competitive applications.

The Counter Strike

The Photoshop 7 SDK seems to be Adobe's adequate – but subtle – response to their dilemma. On the Photoshop SDK Page Adobe says that the new SDK contains proprietary information and therefore only people whose identity is proved (currently only members of the Adobe Solutions Network) can have access to it. Fine, just pay the $195 and join the ASN, you say. Not so fast: "Please note that ASN membership does not automatically entitle you to receive the Adobe Photoshop 7.0 SDK".

Adobe is not doing it only to protect proprietary data. The previous SDKs also contained proprietary information, but Adobe didn't care about identifying people who wanted to download it. By restricting access to the SDK, Adobe can keep companies (e.g. Jasc, Corel or Macromedia) that produce competitive graphics applications from being able to support Photoshop plugins or at least ensure that the present and future improvements to the Photoshop Plugin Standard are not adopted by other companies.

Adobe also seems to fear competition from their own forces. The license agreement of the SDK states more or less clearly that you are only allowed to use the SDK if your plugin software "does not provide functionality or features provided by Adobe Software". According to the license, Adobe also has the right to terminate the agreement immediately, with the effect that the developer has to "discontinue distribution of any Sample Code and/or Redistributable Code". It can be assumed that the plugin developer has to stop selling and distributing his product in this case, because it is very hard, or almost impossible, to create plugins without the provided code. So Adobe has the legal power to stop any plugin developed with the Photoshop 7 SDK if they think that it competes with a feature of Photoshop.

The Consequences

As explained above, Photoshop has also improved over the years because of the ideas of creative plugin developers. So if Adobe doesn't allow plugin developers to "compete" with Photoshop, it is not likely that Adobe will profit from that "competition" either. Of course, it is up to Adobe how strictly they will enforce their rights. There was no such tendency visible in the past, but concerning the trouble that some plugin developers had to obtain the new SDK, this could change.

Although plugins developed with the Photoshop 7 SDK still work in non-Adobe image applications under Windows, plugins created for Mac OS X barely work in other applications under the new operating system. As it is very likely that only Mac OS X plugins will be produced in future, Adobe chose an effective point of time to restrict access to the Photoshop SDK. Moreover, Adobe may plan to still support the current plugin architecture for some time, but how long will it take before Adobe comes up with a totally new, and certainly much better, standard?

Nevertheless, not everything is as bad as it may seem. Some plugin developers will probably start supporting only Adobe applications, but the majority will try to develop for a wide range of applications, even if it may mean more work. Freeware developers will have problems getting an SDK without investing money if they don't already have an older SDK, so there will be fewer freeware plugins in the future (Look for bootleg SDKs to show up on the Net – Ed.). But there are still plugin creation tools such as Filter Factory, Filter Formula and Filter Meister, which are free or much cheaper than getting the Photoshop SDK.

Graphics software companies still have a lot of work ahead to implement many features of the old Photoshop 6 SDK and most of them will continue supporting only parts of the even older Photoshop 4 SDK, which already includes the most essential plugin features. But they could certainly use some tricks to get hold of the latest SDK and implement it – at least, if they don't fear getting sued by Adobe. The Photoshop SDKs were never meant for creating plugin-compatible applications, but that hasn't kept other companies from using it for exactly that purpose.


No one can deny that Adobe, more than any other company, has helped to make the graphics software market what it is today. They deserve great respect and praise for their achievements. Let's hope that they keep that in mind and don't turn around and head blindly in the wrong direction.

What are your thoughts on Adobe's new policy of restricting access to the plugin SDK? Does this benefit you, the user? Why not take a minute to let us, and perhaps Adobe, hear your perspective by taking part in the current survey and adding an optional comment.

Harald Heim is a psychologist and software developer living in Nuremberg, Germany. He is a science fiction fan and is a photomaniac. As a software developer he created various plugin products, different applications and image collections. He runs The Plugin Site and publishes The Plugin Newsletter. You can contact him at: .