Adobe: The Good, The Bad, and the Both – The Q&A

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Like you, having watched ‘Microsoft killers’ come and go over the last 23 years (starting with the Apple Mac and going from there), I have often been dubious of such pronouncements. However I actually think that Adobe may have come up with a killer platform. When I see a group like my friend’s turn their back on a platform they have been working on for five years in favor of Adobe’s technology–then I am guessing that Adobe might be on to something.” – Anonymous, from a Charles Cooper column

Aggressive, n’est-ce pas? And yet a line I’ve heard more than a few times of late, in venues besides Adobe’s recent MAX conference.

Whether you agree or disagree, then, it’s a question worth exploring, because some reasonably intelligent people are beginning to pay attention. Often in spite of themselves, but paying attention nonetheless. Within a variety of Microsoft shops, there’s a backbeat of experimentation, and Salesforce.com’s platform representatives had nothing but compliments for the platform.

To explore why, let’s turn to our old friend the Q&A for a belated look at Adobe happenings at MAX and beyond.

Q: Before we begin, anything to disclose?
A: Indeed – Adobe is a RedMonk customer, and further they comped T&E to their conference last week. In addition, several Adobe competitors, including Eclipse, IBM, Microsoft, and Sun are customers. I believe that’s it.

Q: For those in the audience who may not be as familiar with Adobe, can you give a quick rundown on the portfolio?
A: Well, the full rundown would take too long, but for the purposes of this discussion there are three key technologies: AIR, Flash, and Flex. The links, incidentally, are to Wikipedia which have more complete descriptions, but the simplest way to think about them is probably like this: AIR is the local runtime, Flash is the browser runtime, and Flex is the SDK/development framework and tooling that supports both.

Q: And the development experience is getting good reviews?
A: With some exceptions, yes. Macromedia won over designers long ago; Dreamweaver was a far more popular tool for designing simple web pages than, say, Microsoft’s Frontpage. And we all know (unfortunately) how much designers loved designing full webpages in Flash. Where the experience tended to breakdown was with – if I you’ll permit a false dichotomy for the sake of argument – programmers. The design heritage showed in much of the tooling, and particular in the Flash development process. That’s one problem that Flex was designed to address, and has succeeded to some degree, at least from the conversations I’m having. Many of those having success building Flex applications today have little or no design background whatsoever, but instead come from development backgrounds in .NET, Java, Ajax or other related technologies.

Q: What has Adobe and its Macromedia acquired technologies corrected, and what did they already have right?
A: A variety of things, but several things stand out. The Wikipedia article refers to the “animation metaphor” of Flash, and I think that’s accurate. Developing in Flash simply was not like developing in other technologies, thus was difficult for programmers to adapt to. Flex introduced more traditional programming metaphors that leveraged the Flash runtime, simplifying the development process. Also, the tooling is Eclipse based, which is a further rotation towards a developer orbit. They’ve also managed to provide workarounds for many of the more vexing limitations of Flash based applications, things like the back button, bookmarking, and so on. The browser’s find function still won’t work, however.

As for what they already had right, to me it’s the complete malleability of the canvas, or glass as Adobe might term it. While it’s possible to render complex animations and graphics with a combination of vector graphics, HTML, and Javascript, it’s non-trivial, whereas that’s what Flash was designed for. That can reduce development time dramatically.

Q: Can you expand on the aforementioned limitations of the Ajax/HTML/etc model mentioned above?
A: Certainly. A great many of the developers I know and talk to are web developers, which in this day and age typically means scripting language + Ajax + database. While the majority speak favorably of the speed of development relative to some traditional developments models such as Java or .NET, they will to a person admit that it’s still far more difficult than they’d like.

To begin with, unless you’re using a DTrace Spidermonkey equipped instance of Firefox, there’s no real debugger for much of the Javascript work. There are few tools, period, that work integrate seamlessly all of the necessary pieces as in traditional IDEs. Then there’s the difficulty of rendering complicated UIs in HTML. The growing size of the Javascript libraries. The difficulty of making things like shortcut keys work; my understanding is that Gmail has to trap every single keystroke. The vagaries of CSS. And did I mention that the application needs to be tested – and in most cases redesigned – for each browser? And each version of each browser?

No, the life of a web developer these days is hardly an easy one.

Q: It sounds, then, as if Adobe is solving a real problem then…
A: Well, yes and no. All of the above are real problems faced by real developers on a regular basis, but they seem to manage with a minimum of complaints. That either says something about them or something about the technologies they used to use, you decide…

Also, Flash compatibility can present issue, from version to version or platform to platform. For instance, the old Grand Central Flash interface mechanism for uploading .mp3s worked seamlessly on Windows using Flash, and not at all on Linux.

Q: So what’s the catch?
A: Well, there are several, but the most significant catch is that by committing strongly to these technologies customers are more or less choosing a single vendor strategy. As Robert Deniro’s character says in Ronin, “I never walk into a room I don’t know how to walk out of,” and yet that’s precisely what customers risk by choosing a predominantly single vendor strategy. Mark Pilgrim, for one, is vehemently opposed to this approach, outlining his reasons in a classic rant that uses some choice language. Adobe, in one sense, is not terribly differentiated from Microsoft, although to their credit the open sourcing of Flex was an excellent step towards a more open Adobe.

I asked an Adobe customer, Workday, about just this question at MAX last week. Their answer was architectural; they’ve apparently separated the individual application tiers well enough that a transition away from Flex et al wouldn’t be backbreaking for them if it became necessary. The development speed gain, then, outweighed the future risk of being locked-in to a single vendor platform.

But they admitted that it was something they considered, and how many customers are architected well enough to be able say the same?

Q: What else would concern you?
A: Well, platform ubiquity, for one. It’s irked me in the past when Adobe has claimed that Flash and subsequently were cross-platform runtimes, when thus far they’ve shown little ability to simultaneously ship either on platforms beyond Mac and Windows. If Adobe chooses to serve only those two platforms only as first class citizens, that’s certainly their prerogative; Microsoft’s made a mint being largely single platform. But then do not call it cross-platform, as a two platform approach is not cross-platform in the way that a browser based application can be.

I know the Adobe people are working hard on the problem (see Penguin.swf for details), and they do take it seriously, but I need more evidence before I’ll decide that they’re really committed to a real cross-platform strategy. A lack of an up-to-date Flash on Linux for 2+ years and the continuing lack of AIR on Linux will do that to you.

The pace of the next Flash update and the availability – or not – of AIR should tell us a great deal about Adobe’s intentions with respect to being a true, cross-platform player.

Q: Speaking of AIR, what are your thoughts on the need – or lackthereof – for non-browser based Rich Internet clients?
A: I’m trying to keep an open mind on the subject, as I see applications here and there that are interesting, but I remain skeptical of the promise on any kind of a volume basis. RIA evangelists and advocates always remind me that there platforms are “richer,” and I readily concede the point. But as Tim Bray says:

Does the expanding scope of Ajax leave a big enough gap to grow a new ecosystem in? And, at the end of the day, will there be enough richness to seduce enough people away from the considerable charms of the browser and its reassuring “Back” button? We’ll see.

Judging from what I heard just a few weeks ago at Salesforce.com’s conference, and the obvious fact that there are certain things the browser simply can’t do effectively yet, I have no difficulty allowing that RIA’s will blossom in certain niches that require their particular abilities. But do I really want an application for Amazon, an application for eBay, an application for Gmail, an application for posting to WordPress, an application for Google Reader, an application for…you get the point?

Maybe you do, but I don’t.

Q: What of the oft stated concern that Adobe is attempting to “fork” the web?
A: It remains a concern, but I’m encouraged by the dialogue coming out of Adobe these days. They’ve come a long way from “the web is broken.” Much of the discussion at MAX, in fact, centered on how Adobe’s technologies could complement rather than supplant Ajax and other web based solutions. Sure, in a perfect world Adobe would like more Workdays, which cut fully over to Flex/Flash from Ajax, but they appear less strident in their descriptions of competing offerings – always a positive in my book.

I remain convinced that an Adobe that works with the web is a major asset; see Google Finance, and Tube, You. When Adobe starts making noises about an all-Adobe web, however, well, let’s just say I know exactly how Mark feels. I’m hopeful that we’ll see the former, but we need to watch for signs of the latter.

Q: Lastly, how about the original quotation: does Adobe have a chance to really challenge Microsoft?
Q: Too early to say. They have some opportunity to diffentiate on the cross-platform front, Moonlight notwithstanding, and by opening up Flex and choosing the Eclipse base they can reach developers that would have otherwise been closed to them. But a handful of smart people that I know outside of Adobe are positively terrified by Silverlight, and are halfway convinced that Microsoft may finally have the Flash killer its wanted for years – and more.

Q: Anything else to add?
A: That should do it for now. As always, if there are questions I didn’t get to, send them in and I’ll try and get answers up.