Digital hobbyist photographers have a new tool available to polish up their pictures -- for free. Adobe Systems (NASDAQ:ADBE) just released a beta version of Photoshop Express, a simple yet impressive Web-based image editor. What’s in it for Adobe? Read on.

The tool combines an intuitive image portfolio system with the basics of photo editing, such as red-eye reduction, color balance, cropping, and a few simple "special effects." It's all built on Adobe Flash, and by extension on the Web 2.0 framework Flex. The release serves as a showcase for what Flex applications can do, and could inspire renewed interest in the Ajax alternative.

Photoshop Express looks very clean and elegant, loads quickly, and runs well on this aging laptop of mine. It's quick and easy to hook into other popular photo-management repositories like Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Picasa, Facebook, or News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) PhotoBucket. One glaring omission is Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) and its mega-popular Flickr service, but then again, Express is still in beta. I'd bet that an engineer or two is working on Flickr integration behind the scenes.

It's also a grab for user sign-ups, since you have to supply an email address to sign up for an account. Without it, you can't upload or save images, short of side-loading Facebook pictures and the like on demand. Once it's got your address, Adobe can then start sending out marketing messages and gentle reminders to upgrade to a full-fledged image-editing suite, and the money game is on.

Photoshop Express has the potential to attract a lot of users, based on name recognition, an unbeatable price (free!), and near-flawless usability. There is no advertising on the site, so monetization seems based on the classic drug-dealing method: The first hit is free, but you gotta pay for the good stuff.

Consider it a marketing exercise -- Adobe is simply spreading the good word about its powerful software packages and Web interfaces, and the direct payoff will likely be very small. But Adobe is Flex-ing its muscles for good reason, because much like 3-D rival Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK), it's a very healthy business hitched to an underappreciated stock.

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