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Weekly Column

An AIR of Invisibility: Adobe has Microsoft in its sights

Status: [CLOSED] comments (87)
By Robert X. Cringely

Al Mandel, who helped market the original LaserWriter at Apple and later had several high-level positions at AOL, used to say, "The step after ubiquity is invisibility," by which he meant that once a technology had reached the point where everyone had it, then people simply forgot about it and from then on assumed it would be there. Invisibility is a good thing because it means there will always be a market for your product. Invisibility is a high-tech annuity. There are very few technologies, however, that make it all the way to invisibility and most of those when it comes to PCs are hardware technologies -- DRAM, disk drives, Ethernet, MAYBE x86 processors. It is much more rare for software to become invisible. Microsoft Windows still hasn't made it, though html and zip encoding have. In terms of software applications, I can think of only two that have reached the point of ubiquity and hence invisibility -- Flash and PDF, both of which come from the same company, Adobe Systems, the promised subject of this week's column. Being the owner of two invisible technologies makes Adobe more powerful than most of us can even imagine.

Adobe is a fascinating company both because of its techiest of roots and because it stands today at a corporate crossroads of sorts and has to decide what it intends to be when the company is all grown up. Adobe absolutely dominates nearly every market for graphical software and is a strong competitor in video, too. For the company to reach the next level of growth would require either absorbing or destroying Autodesk, thus taking over Computer-Aided Design, the last graphic niche Adobe does not control, or choosing to branch off in some new direction. Much to the relief of Autodesk, I believe Adobe has opted for the latter course.

Adobe is moving into developer tools in a big way to support its grab for mindshare in the interactive/rich web application space where much of the excitement lately seems to be. Some people think of this as Browser Wars 2.0, but I think it is more fundamental than that. Here are the players. Microsoft is putting massive resources behind Silverlight. Sun is trying to take Java to the next level with Java FX. Mozilla is trying to improve its position through AJAX, Canvas support, and better offline support. And Adobe is leaning hard on Flash, Adobe Integrated Runtime or AIR (formerly code-named Apollo), and Flex. My money is on Adobe simply because of those two invisible weapons, PDF and Flash.

What could PDF, Adobe's Portable Document Format, possibly have to do with this? It's a 30+ megabyte download living right now in more than a BILLION computers. Same for Flash -- a BILLION computers. That's more than 60 megabytes of Adobe code living in nearly every computer on every desktop or laptop in the world -- greater market penetration by far than even Windows enjoys. And what's IN there? Nobody outside Adobe really knows. Is there room in that 60 megabytes for the Adobe Reader, Flash, and a few hooks or applets Adobe might throw in to assist with some future product or service roll out? Sure, why not? That's the power of invisibility.

But invisibility offers no advantage to those who can't follow through. That's not Adobe, by which I mean that's not Flash, which has grown to be so much more than it was ever intended to be.

By itself, Flash has had an amazing evolution. We started with Java applets right? What happened to those? (They're actually making a slow comeback with many of the original issues fixed.) Flash did Java applets right. In fact they did it so right, I imagine Flash adherents will be offended with just comparing the two.

The folks at Macromedia (now Adobe) saw some amazing shortcomings in other web-based execution systems and simply did it right. Java applets were fantastic with major shortcomings (huge Java runtime, poor performance, clunky and ugly interface, etc). Flash fixed all or most of those. And Flash does cross-platform so much better than Java ever did.

If it sounds like I am more or less writing off Java despite Sun's recent announcement of Java FX to directly compete with AIR and Silverlight, well I am. Adobe is far more focused than Sun on this market segment and there are just as many Flash developers as Java developers.

So where is Adobe headed with this? Traditionally we'd expect a fight with Microsoft for the desktop, but I think Adobe is headed in a different direction, toward mobile and embedded devices, with the desktop variants like AIR primarily intended to make sure there is something for all those mobile devices to link TO.

Here's a clue. Describing why Adobe bought Macromedia (it was to get Flash) an Adobe employee said, "We tried everything, but we couldn't get Acrobat small enough to work on a cell phone. You can do a Flash interface that's a fraction of the file size."

Expect Flash in everything and perhaps even Flash in a chip. Deploying software in hardware is the ultimate DRM.

Think about anywhere you see a graphical user interface that isn't attached to a PC -- kiosks, high-end TV remote controls, touchscreens, ATMs, cell phones, digital cameras, VCRs, DVRs, GPS systems, set-top boxes, computer monitors, televisions, elevators, the Toyota Prius, medical equipment, Point of Sale systems, the "cash registers" at McDonalds -- everywhere, really.

In each case, the user interface was probably developed by a specialized team for specific hardware. The team may have limited training in GUI design or usability, the interface may not be portable across new device models, and the development tools may not be very evolved, which would slow the GUI creation process.

Flash potentially solves all those problems AND creates new opportunities.

Flash is well understood, and the development environment is highly evolved and therefore efficient. There are many experienced Flash designers, so the pool of available talent is potentially much larger. GUI design can be done by people who don't require intimately specialized knowledge of the underlying hardware. GUI elements would be portable across device models and even device categories. Think how the right-facing triangle of the "Play" button started on tape recorders, moved to VCRs, and is now on CD players, DVD players, DVRs, iPods, and any hardware or software that records or plays back content.

GUIs would evolve much more quickly and cost less to create. There could be standard interface libraries for all types of uses, and the similar GUIs would lower the learning curve for users. Talented interface designers would be in demand. User interfaces would be potentially upgradeable. More interesting, GUIs could be user-specific: the same cell phone might have a "Grandma interface" for one user, but a very different GUI for teens. And there's no reason why that should stop with cell phones.

Funny, the latest release of Adobe Creative Suite lets you prototype interfaces for various cell phones, so this strategy -- at least in its embryonic form -- has now been expressed as code.

But let's take it a step further. Once you own the interface to every mobile device you can make those devices talk more easily to your networked applications than possibly to those from Apple, Microsoft, or Sun. As we move toward a fully mobile Internet, compliance with mobile APIs will be more important than what operating system is running on the server, which is why I believe Adobe is putting so much effort behind AIR and Flex.

It's a perfectly valid plan for taking from Microsoft the market leadership in software 10 years from now by creating yet another invisible platform.

And if it doesn't work, well there's always Autodesk.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (87)

Flashblock is a must-have Firefox extension right now. Just sayin...

Bryan H | Jul 06, 2007 | 11:40AM

Kudos for another insightful analysis (Apple attempting to use its market power to nullify Adobe's billion-strong PDF/Flash installations). BUT... does it lose cred in the face of the WSJ's Mossberg report that Apple will in fact add Flash support to iPhone in the form of a routine software update?

Phill Medeleven | Jul 06, 2007 | 11:45AM

There are two things people seem to be missing here. First is that Javascript is a first class citizen in the world of AIR. You can write Javascript/HTML/AJAX AIR apps without ever thinking about ActionScript/Flash. If you really want to do Sockets and some other things it helps to understand that AS3 is providing this behavior, but the api is completely transparent. I missed this initially when Apollo was came out because it seemed to be all about Flash/Flex. The other thing is Tamarin the now open source VM that AS3 & Javascript run on in AIR. Firefox will be adopting Tamarin too. Sure, Adobe could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory but even if they do, it may be too late for Silverlight to really have an impact - it may be Microsoft's OS/2.

meshverse | Jul 09, 2007 | 10:46AM