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Adobe's Flash in the Can: How the Company Is Failing Its User Base

Years ago, before the company I work for now even existed, I had the pleasure of knowing -- mostly by telephone, but still -- John Warnock, the co-founder and former CEO of Adobe.

He always struck me as a good man and a kind person. I remember when Adobe laid off a significant number of employees at one point in the late '90s (enough to make the news), Warnock spoke to me of his regret about putting people out of work. He was sincere. He meant what he said. He told me that the only positive he could take out of the experience was that cutting a few jobs would ultimately help protect many others. But it was small consolation for him -- that much was easy to tell.

Warnock -- who now chairs Adobe's board with fellow co-founder Charles Geschke, another good guy -- was an old-school tech CEO. He spoke openly and honestly. He avoided CEO-speak. He wasn't flanked by an army of PR people at all times. He took phone calls. He actually answered questions. He talked happily and nostalgically about his days at Xerox PARC; he was, after all, a computer nerd at heart, not a cold-hearted executive. Today's callous world of top-level business bots could use more people like John Warnock.

During Warnock's long tenure as Adobe CEO, which ended in 2001, the company established itself as the standard in the creation and management of digital content. PDF became a ubiquitous term and an ISO standard. Acrobat rivaled just about any product other than Windows in terms of name recognition, and Photoshop achieved the ultimate in brand status -- it became (and still is) a verb.

Adobe even made a pretty good run at Quark, which dominated (and might still dominate, depending on whom you ask) the market for desktop-publishing software. The competition between the two in that market continues. Adobe actually staved off a bizarre and entirely unwelcome takeover bid from Quark in the late '90s. (I covered that story for another trade magazine, and while I endeavor to be fair in all of my writing, I have to say that Quark was the strangest company I've ever dealt with. And I don't mean that in a good way.)

Adobe survived and mostly thrived for years by putting out focused, useful technology that met users' needs and was intuitive to use. And then things got a little weird. Likely sensing a need to be more than just a document-creation and picture-editing company, Adobe bought Macromedia in 2005, thereby acquiring a technology called Flash. Suddenly, Adobe was doing rich Internet content creation, or some such catch phrase, and was moving into the market for Web-development tools.

Somehow, Flash caught on, and millions of users started getting and complying with update messages on an annoyingly regular basis, lest they not be able to watch viral videos on YouTube because their versions of Flash were obsolete (or crashing, as Flash tends to do). As mobile devices became more popular for consumption of multimedia content, Flash moved onto them as well. For a while. But not anymore.

Famously, Steve Jobs and Apple rejected Flash for the iPad, preferring HTML5 instead. And what Apple wants, Apple gets. In this case, Apple made Flash disappear, sort of. Adobe this week revealed that it is effectively killing Flash for mobile devices, moving instead to contributing to the open source HTML5. Flash had become clunky for mobile developers, anyway, so it wasn't just Apple that saw mobile Flash off to an early grave.

Some experts, such as Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates (see, Jack, I finally used something from one of your mass e-mails), suspect that the death of Flash on mobile devices is the first sign of the faltering of Flash altogether. "Adobe may ultimately gain revenue from the popularity of HTML5 development, but we believe this move signals the slow decline of Flash from the overall market," Gold wrote in an e-mail many of you might also have already read. Gold basically said that Flash was getting too expensive for Adobe to continue to develop.

I believe that the death of Flash on mobile devices and its probable march to extinction is a sign of something more, though -- a sign that Adobe, in trying to be the leader in rich Internet content or whatever it's called, lost its focus on the products that made it a successful company. Financially, things aren't exactly great at Adobe, as evidenced by the company's plan to "restructure" and lay off 750 employees (the announcement of which was accompanied this week by a requisite plunge in Adobe's stock price). 

But there's more to it than just money. I've used Adobe products for a long time, primarily for work. And I have to say in all honesty that they're getting worse. Acrobat has become slow, clunky and about as intuitive as a James Joyce novel written in Urdu. Reader isn't much better for editing PDFs -- it loads at mid-'90s speeds and responds about as well as a broken-down Yugo. I'm no developer, but it wouldn't surprise me if Flash had become a major pain to develop for. Everything Adobe seems to be headed in that direction. I've always liked Adobe, and I don't mean to be unfairly harsh here, but I think I'm reflecting reality pretty accurately.

Companies have to expand the breadth of their product offerings. Tech companies in particular can't usually stand pat on dominating one market or relying too much on one technology for revenue production. But moving into new fields shouldn't mean abandoning established ones or letting established products rot. (Just look at Microsoft and Vista. The company tried so hard to please everybody and chase all of its competitors -- catchable or not -- that it forgot to come up with a decent flagship product. Fortunately, Windows 7 has rectified that.)

I have no idea what type of leadership Adobe has these days. I don't know the current CEO. I don't know how directly involved John Warnock is as chairman of the board. But I will say that Warnock's Adobe -- at least in my view -- wouldn't have let the company's core products become afterthoughts as he was chasing some pie-in-the-sky new initiative. He was too much of a tech perfectionist to do something like that. He cared too much about users.

Warnock would have kept everything moving forward rather than getting hung up on one big new initiative at the expense of everything else. And it's that type of thinking that Adobe needs now -- because not only is Flash tanking, but so are the applications that made Adobe a powerhouse in the industry. And that can't be good for the short term or the long term. It can't be good for anybody but Adobe's competitors.

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Posted by Lee Pender on November 09, 2011 at 11:57 AM