Just flying back from Adobe MAX 2010 I’m coming away with the sense that Adobe has finally realized the value of the web over Flash, giving them a fighting chance where once they seemed a little too “let them eat cake.” It’s a few more long days of marching to get out of the woods, but they’re at least pointing in the right direction…finally.
Still not dead yet
Adobe has suffered from three things of late, only the second two of which I and you, dear readers, really care about:
- Poor Creative Suite 4 sales and/or sentiment – why upgrade? We just buy every other version anyhow.
- Apple hates Adobe & delights in kicking sand in their face in front of the ladies. Everyone left Apple for dead (aside from that weird $150 million Microsoft injection aside back in 1997), and now Apple’s back like an angry beefcake with a well cut 2×4 ready to bludgeon Everyone into a shallow grave.
- Too rabid of a belief in Flash as a development platform, and the strategy and portfolio neglect that came with ravishing attention & affection on Number One Son.
After this week’s MAX, Adobe seems to have removed of enough of this chaff – not all – to start taking control of their own destiny and start having a real tools strategy beyond “skip intro” that can could grow into one of their future cash cows, web & app development.
Several years ago, at MAX 2006 my take away from the gold-encrusted halls of the Venetian was that Adobe was trying to fork the web with its Flash ambitions. Their line, the Macromedia injection still fresh, was that it was a better platform than the stagnated and hard to develop web technologies available (Ajax at the time). Of course, it was Apple and Facebook who succeeded at forking the web, each in their own wickedly clever and bold ways. In retrospect, Adobe never stood a chance against those dynamos.
After years of keeping web development in the closet, from the Adobe MAX keynotes and news this week, it seems like Adobe is now leading their conversation with web, and with the charged Rorschach-semantic inducing “HTML5” at that. (The only tech-term that’s less precise and more vaguely all encompassing than “HTML5” now is “cloud,” “SOA” having been exiled off to the old folks home long ago.)
If you look into their eyes, you can pretty much believe that these Adobe folks really mean it when it comes to servicing web developers, not just Flash developers. Their technology is both ancient and early. You may have forgotten the Dreamweaver and ColdFusion empires Adobe has in recently, Flashier times; their “HTML5” tools – like all of HTML5! – are a work in progress.
As James Governor said in one of our meetings, Adobe’s success in the web development market requires violating one of the top Adobe marketing taboos: breaking up Creative Suite bundling, if only for the web development tools products. More than doing that (which, to be fair is done somewhat across Dreamweaver, Flash Builder, and Coldfusion – keep it up!), pricing will be a tough nut to crack. Web developers pay more for coffee in a year than they do for tools, and even the price of the lowest level of Creative Suite will keep developers in the black stuff for months.
To crack the web developer market, Adobe has to move into the $50-$100 price range that TextMate and (lower rung) IntelliJ tools swim in – IntelliJ lets you spend more money if you decide you’re not a “student” in the school of life. It’s a miracle that those two pervasive tools can pry cash out of skinflint developers, and they’re clearly setting the pricing bar. If Adobe could figure out monetizing cloud-based services (Cf. Code2Cloud or Adobe’s own BrowserLabs), then the numbers might work for free tooling, but Adobe just doesn’t seem ready for that in the short term, despite the sleeping giant that is Adobe’s SaaS portfolio. (Said giant’s slumber is a constant source of befuddlement for me.)
It goes without saying that the tooling has to be “agnostic,” working with whatever web, HTML5, Ajax, mobile, etc. technologies that come out, treating Flash as a feature (as James put it, I believe) rather than the platform. So far, this “new Adobe” hasn’t done anything to make me think they won’t, but it’s a shaky sentiment.
An Excess of Opportunities
Given that Apple isn’t thought to be slashing at Adobe’s sinews anymore, when it comes to platforms and development, Adobe actually has several great opportunities.
Adobe has an under-appreciated (by The Market) asset in Day software (once the acquisition closes, blah, blah) which brings them an overly goodwill-encrusted seat at the open source, and thus, developer relations table. While Day may not be widely known as a brand to all, their deep tie-up with the Apache Software Foundation and the Java community is critical, valuable, and real. Adobe hasn’t always maximized how they use open source tactically, so the developer relations energy that Day brings is Adobe’s to loose, or use.
Pulling back, the fragmentation in the Java market and Oracle’s “I’m not here to make friends” attitude is creating developer relations vacuums right and left in the Java world at the moment. VMWare/SpringSource are inches away from filling those holes, but there’s still time for others. And while “Java” may seem like the antithesis of what Adobe would be interested in, the question is: how many other technology ecosystems are out there? There’s such a small pool of them at the moment (Java, PHP, “web,” iOS, and mobile…see below for “tablet”) that it’s bad risk management to ignore any of them.
“Our people are our most valuable assets.”
And that’s Adobe’s lowest hanging fruit when it comes to this: letting their engineering out of the house. Adobe has done a poor job of having their developers talk to the developers they sell to. Don’t get me wrong, it happens, but it’s a far cry from the salad days of IBM developerWorks and the (sadly revenue-disconnected) developer relations success Sun had around Java. The web would be a more exciting place, and more favorable for Adobe, if their Computer Scientists were given carte blanche to talk to the outside world and given incentives too. The more outrageously frank and transparent the better – e.g., James Gosling has done a suburb job in developer relations for the Java community now that he doesn’t actually work for Snorkle.
(I should say: I have no reason to believe one way or the other if Adobe engineering is “locked up,” but they certainly could be pushed to be more chatty in public.)
The Great “Multi-screen” Bet
I discovered on this trip that I have no idea what “multi-screen” really means, in the same way that I have no idea what “HTML5,” “cloud,” or “SOA” really means anymore. “Multi-screen” means a lot of things, and a lot of fun and interesting things at that (queue the Minority Report mouth-breathers).
Adobe uses the term to mean the new market Apple has created in smart phones and tablets, and also the emerging TV-as-computer market (“computer TVs”?). Apple has this market locked up now, and as one spot-on commentator recently said (can’t find the link, tragically), whenever you hear the word “tablet” now, people really just mean “iPad.” The “tablet” market does not exist in any real way…yet.
We’ve seen devices like the Samsung Galaxy, the Blackberry PlayBook (which I’ve learned that James has a love affair with), and even the actually shipping Dell Streak. These devices are “dropping,” as the kids say, sometime soon, just in time for Christmas, the Festival of Light, and other excuses to spend gads of money on China’s best. This “holiday season” is D-Day for the tablet space. If the invasion succeeds, people like Adobe (and, really, everyone else but Apple) will be a good position. If it fails, the ground hog will have seen it’s shadow and it’ll be more of an Eastern front meat-grinder than an adventure in France.
TV is an odd port of hope here – a sort of Casablanca to continue the pained metaphors – where no one really has much control (read: Apple). With Netflix OnDemand and Hulu shipping in TV-as-computers, the civilian consumers of the world actually have a reason to buy these products (unlike the tragic Bluray forays Sun tried to make several years ago, which was structurally the same TV strategy Adobe and others are now making). Would be TV-as-computer arms dealers like Adobe need to start showing people why they’d care to have “widgets” on their TV beyond streaming video. I’m not sure DVD menus have been a “must have” for consumers (they seem to get in the way of actually playing the video and those extras are usually adver-crap you’d expect to see on the TV Guide channel), but that’s a glimpse of what could be done. More interestingly, as James pointed out, is the ability to “drill down” on various things on TV, like the stats for some sports player.
As mentioned above, for Adobe (and others), hedging against the huge risks (read: Apple + 2×4 + shallow grave) in the “multi-screen” space is key. No tech company can afford to put it’s eggs in one basket here (except for Google who has more eggs than they know what to do with), so they need to look towards desktop and traditional web and mobile development as well. “Tablet” is no easy street just yet.
It’s popular now to speculate about technology company mergers. I will briefly indulge you, dear readers, because RedMonk Analytics indicates you like it and if anything, we aim to please.
In summary, after the long-winter of not spending money, technology companies have massive cash balances on their sheets and pundits are eager to see them spend it (I’d prefer the more grinning-Machiavellian strategy that Google can pull off: wait for another nuclear winter and use your cash-piles to out-spend, out-hire, and out-price [free!] the innovation-skeletons who’re your competitors, but Wall Street can’t be bothered to think for more than 90 days into the future, so never mind that).
Since the Microsoft and Adobe CEOs met, everyone is abuzz about someone buying Adobe. First, it’d be crazy for Microsoft to buy them – but, hey, Oracle bought Sun, so one has to be careful about what’s considered mental illness, the desk reference apparently under new editorship. I’m not a numbers guy, as you know, dear readers, so I have no head for putting together the spreadsheet to make sense of these things, but when has that stopped me? I have two picks for the parlor game du jour:
- VMWare/SpringSource – whether by strong partnering, merging, or acquiring, these two together would put together the foundation for a solid, new developer ecosystem and platform. VMWare needs to figure out application development to retain and up-sell to it’s existing customers and to bring in new customers; SpringSource needs a killer-UI strategy, and their mobile story is anemic at best (and they’ll admit this, with a quick, trustworthy follow-up of “we’re working on it”). The difficulty with this is all that other stuff, you know, that makes all of Adobe’s money, Photoshop, publishing, video. But, hey, it’d be good on EMC/VMWare if they boggled The Market’s minds again (the first time being SpringSource) and just said, “hey, consumerization of IT, bro!”
- Google – these guys can’t do product strategy to save their life, and they have no reason why they should, because their life is in no way under threat. If Android and every Google UI was even half as well done as Apple user experience, Google would quickly move into that tasty monopoly territory Microsoft milked until they hit the government ceiling. Adobe could bring that in the web, desktop, and mobile space. Think about how critical Flash was and still is to YouTube and how big a part of Google’s identity that is. Google UX and UI are bad, but the functionality is so good we don’t even notice. Part of Apple’s disruptive success has been taking the time to deliver over-the-top UX and UI, and adding Adobe to Google would be like gas on the fire.
I don’t really seriously think anyone Big would acquire Adobe, or vice-versa. As I say, their business is such a hodgepodge that it’d be weird to buy and then run all of it. Then again, companies like HP do well with a mix of printer ink (!) and blades.
More realistic is to think about partnerships like the above.
RIA is Dead
Nothing like a little link-bating, eh? Seriously though, I’ve had the personal sentiment, half-jokingly uttered to many of you, dear readers, that the term “Rich Internet Application” has run its course. You don’t hear the “RIA” term used as a general term, outside of the cadre of folks like myself. I’d expect Adobe to be the big boy on the block still using the term, but, really, they don’t. I’m sure it was uttered many times in public, during keynotes, but I didn’t really notice. In private conversations, sure, the term was used, but it was more for lack of a better phrase.
It seems the phrase RIA just isn’t taken seriously by people anymore, let alone used at all. The technology, ideas, and goals are all the same, but RIA as a distinct thing has been subsumed into what it is to be an application or a mobile app. Of course the UI has to look good, be “rich,” and of course it’s going to be connected to the Internet. An app that doesn’t do that is just text messaging.
As I’ve noted in snarky Twitter comments here and there, SOA has long been in the same boat. No one would dare say they’ve built an SOA for all this mobile, social and Whatnot 2.0 stuff, but that’s exactly the type of backend – architecture – that has been built out. Just like SOA, the idea of RIA is a strong as ever and widely in use.
What pushed me over the edge to finally tuck “RIA” into bed was the fact that multiple people, Adobe and non-Adobe, said as much themselves in private conversations. So much so, in fact, that I now feel like I’m a bit of a pass thru for The Message, really.
Disclosure: Adobe is a client and paid my travel, hotel, registration, and plenty of food & drink for MAX. I got a free Droid 2 (no service, though) and Logitech Revue Google TV, as did all the MAX attendees. Microsoft, Dell, VMWare, the ASF, and TaskTop are clients as well. Day was a client. See the RedMonk client list for others.