The Smartest Guy in the Room
Posted at July 3, 2006 04:46 PM in General .

I recently returned from a Microsoft Pro Photo Summit on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, WA. We had the opportunity to listen to discussions on a variety of topics from storage to what professional photographers "want."

However, the most interesting discussions from an intellectual standpoint involved image formats. I know what you're thinking. Mundane, boring, who cares? Well, the truth of the matter is that as consumers of digital photography technology, we really shouldn't care. The physics and mathematics of image sensors and how they convert RAW data into stuff we see are necessarily complex, so we leave that to the smartest guys in the room.

On this occassion, it happened to be Thomas Knoll, the inventor of Photoshop.

Dressed in a polo and dockers, he looks and sounds like the guy you want to have invented Photoshop, not the multi-millionaire software developer that he's become. While he was on a panel, he answered a question by using words like "quantum physics" and "photons" and "demosaicing." Even though 99% of the audience had no idea what he was talking about, everyone agreed that it was fascinating. There was a general, albeit tacit, understanding that Photoshop has made digital photography possible quite literally (it has, incidentally, 98% marketshare for image editing software).

My favorite moment was just after Bill Crow, program manager for Windows Media Photo, demonstrated their new image format. Apparently Knoll and another HP color scientist took issue with some of his statements so they went down to the darkened stage during a short break to talk to Crow. A large crowd formed around the three, and it looked and sounded more like a schoolyard fight with super nerds. Sports Illustrated photographer Peter Read Miller usually shoots the biggest games, but this time, he was deeply engaged like the ultimate fan while quipping to me that he could listen to this stuff all day.

I didn't learn much from listening to them speak since the discussion flew over my head, but rather gained an appreciation for the level of intellect that actually goes into the technology. As consumers, we take technological development for granted. We assume that someone else will figure things out for us. Then we're all too happy to bitch about how it should work, forgetting how many steps and decisions preceded any given end-user feature.

Of course, things ought to work easily for the end-user. They shouldn't have to be concerned with technology even though they benefit from it. But occassionally, it's humbling to hear people like Knoll speak, and be thankful that he continues to innovate, even in the face of criticism.