Online photo editing rivals offline software

I love taking pictures.

I don’t usually think of them as pictures. More photographs. Timeless portraits and expansive landscapes that reach into your soul and stir emotions previously inaccessible.

If you’re wondering why I don’t have links to any of these photographs it’s because I don’t have any. I have thousands of pictures, though. To become a photograph I have to open the image in Photoshop, Aperture or at least iPhoto, do some cropping, color enhancement, maybe convert to black and white.

Doing this generally requires a powerful computer, expensive software and some skill.

Recently I stumbled across Picnik, which virtually eliminates your need for all three. On it, you can do the kind of basic photo editing that you’d usually do in iPhoto or Photoshop Elements. Mere words cannot do this site justice. You need to play with it for a few minutes to experience its awesomeness directly (they provide a couple of images for this purpose).

That you can upload an image to a website and manipulate it isn’t new. Sites like Shutterfly have long allowed you to add borders or make an image black and white. What’s interesting to me is the amount of power, control and interactivity Picnik offers. Its buttons, sliders and other controls feel as smooth, and respond as quickly, as local application (in some cases more so!).

Even in a “beta,” unfinished product, the polish and finesse are unmistakable.

What’s particularly interesting about Picnik is it uses other websites to do stuff it doesn’t want to do. While iPhoto lets you to manage your photo collection, Picnik leaves the photo management to others. They integrate with Flickr as your organizer, for example, which means Picnik can focus on just the image manipulation piece.

It’s brilliant.

The promise of web-based applications has been a long time coming, but with the ubiquitousness of Adobe Flash and the ascendence of AJAX-style functionality, I think we’ve finally crossed the threshold for real, functional, we-based applications that look, feel and work just like a desktop application.

Picnik is one of the more recent ones I’ve come across. Another example is Apple’s .Mac Webmail, which, if you weren’t paying extremely close attention, you’d easily mistake for a local application. You can drag and drop messages between folders, start typing recipients and have it display matches as you type, the spell checker displays popups of possible word replacements, and windows come and everything just feels like a desktop app. (If you haven’t tried it, sign up for a free trial and play with it for a while.)

Some applications are trying hard but haven’t quite made it to the “feels real” stage. For example, even though both Kiko’s and Google’s calendars let you move appointments by dragging, neither feels particularly smooth and intuitive, and for some reason Google thinks every click on the calendar means you want to create an appointment. No doubt both will be improved over time, and it show how far web applications have come that I’m complaining about the level to which they feel like desktop applications.

It will be interesting to watch what kind of applications find themselves at home on the web, and if they’ll replace desktop applications for primary use.

Security and privacy issues not withstanding of course. But that’s for another entry.