Why Adobe is NOT the Next Microsoft

Ted Leung has posted blog entry provocatively titled : Adobe wants to be the Microsoft of the Web and Scoble has picked up on it.

In Ted’s post, he worries about the issues around Flash being sourced from a single vendor:

What is not appealing is going back to a technology which is single sourced and controlled by a single vendor. If web applications liberated us from the domination of a single company on the desktop, why would we be eager to be dominated by a different company on the web? Yet, this is what Adobe would have us do, as would the many who are (understandably, along some dimensions, anyway) excited about Flex? Read Anne Zelenka’s post on Open Flash if you don’t think that Flash has an openness problem. I’m not eager to go from being beholden to Microsoft to being beholden to Adobe.

Despite the title of his post, this isn’t an unreasonable worry. Its unfortunate the title is so sensationalistic1, though, because Adobe will never be the next Microsoft, and furthermore, we don’t want to be. There is a huge difference between Microsoft’s business model, which is about using the web to drive sales of their underlying monopoly products, and Adobe’s strategy, which is to give away technology that expands the web and sell tools around that technology. If you don’t believe me when I tell you this is a huge difference, I suggest you take look at the revenue numbers for both companies yourself.

I think a big part of the fear of Adobe being a single source vendor comes from thinking about Flash Player the way people think about Windows: if Flash Player becomes the dominant runtime for RIAs, could Adobe hold everyone hostage by charging money for the Flash Player or doing something else equally obnoxious? The answer is, quite simply, no. Flash is an important format for the Web today, but a big part of the reason why its successful is because the Player is free (as in beer), it is installed on the vast majority of desktop computers, and it just works wherever it is installed. If Adobe held Flash Player hostage, the Web would just route around the damage by picking some other format that didn’t have the same restrictions.

Same thing goes for Apollo, only more so. Apollo isn’t just about Flash, it is also about Ajax. If Adobe tried to hold Apollo hostage in some way, developers would just move their Apollo apps back into the web browser.

So that is my logical answer to the question, now let me give you a more emotional argument: Adobe would never try to abuse the dominance of Flash Player because it simply isn’t that kind of company. I’m not saying Adobe has never made mistakes (e.g. Sklyarov), and Adobe certainly has no aversion to making money, but at its core Adobe is the most ethical company I’ve ever worked for, of any size. (Yes, I worked for both Apple and Microsoft previously – there is no comparison.) Holding the Web hostage is something that I believe is completely against Adobe’s values. I realize this leaves me open to charges of naivety, but so be it.

Update 3-03-2007: On being closed source

Michael Coté linked to this post with the comment that it was a “Reply to Ted’s post on Adobe and being a closed source vendor.” While I certainly can’t argue with that characterization, it does make we want to clarify something: when I discuss Adobe’s likely actions, I’m doing it under the assumption the status quo will stay just that: the Flash Player will remain a closed source product, and that the SWF format will continue with its existing license. But that doesn’t mean that I’m arguing for the status quo, or that the status quo can’t and won’t be changed. I know that people like John Dowdell (who are much more involved in Flash Player efforts than I am) have been thinking long and hard about the way forward for Flash Player and Apollo, and have asked many questions publicly about the benefits and costs of opening things up more. Thus I think its fair to say that change is quite possible. I personally would welcome steps in this direction but don’t really have much involvement with that part of Adobe.

1 Then again, who am I to criticize other people’s sensationalistic titles?

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~ by Andrew Shebanow on 02Mar07.

9 Responses to “Why Adobe is NOT the Next Microsoft”

  1. > why its successful is because the Player is free

    Is there anything that prohibits them from charging for the player in the future?

    [Andrew says] If by them you mean Adobe, then there is no law that prohibits charging in the future. However, there are a lot of forces that make it highly unlikely that such a thing would happen. Explaining those forces was the point of my article.

  2. Yeah, sure.
    Ofcourse I’m the one being obnoxious and unethical by using such an obscure OS like Linux. And I’m being totally evil by doing so on 64 bit machines and formerly on PowerPC-driven Macs. Right.

    Adobe is already and has been for years abusing its power by enforcing on which systems people can and cannot use Flash. Flash is the only mainstream web-technology that is deliberately limiting peoples options in this way.

    The biggest difference between Microsoft and Adobe is that Microsoft is trying very hard to be less evil. Adobe is doing exactly the opposite.

    [Andrew says] Wow. I have no idea how you went from what I said to the idea that I was implying that it was unethical or obnoxious to use Linux. I never said anything remotely like that and do not agree with such an idea.

    As for Flash on Linux, well, what can I say? Macromedia did drag its feet on Linux support for quite a while, but that was a problem that got fixed around the time that Adobe acquired Macromedia (though I don’t know personally whether or not the Macromedia folks were doing this before the acquisition). Now the Linux stuff is on the same codebase as Mac and Windows and should be updated in lockstep with those platforms. This is a big step forward. You’d think we’d get at least some credit for that from Linux advocates, but no such luck. Instead, now we get criticism for not supporting 64bit. When we fix that (and I’m sure we will sooner or later), then folks will criticize us for not supporting BSD, then Plan 9, then Minix, etc. Ok, fine, I can live with fact that we can’t ever please everyone.

    As for the claim that Flash is “the only mainstream web-technology that is deliberately limiting peoples options in this way” – well, that is a very narrowly defined set of technologies, isn’t it? WPFE clearly doesn’t qualify because it isn’t mainstream, right? But if we were to compare Flash to WPFE, you’d see that WPFE runs only on Windows (XP and above) and Mac OS X. Microsoft has said flat out they won’t make WPFE for Linux. Flash runs on many more operating systems and devices than that – not just Linux, but mobile phones, cars, refrigerators, etc. Adobe also just handed the PDF standard to ISO. But Microsoft is getting more open and Adobe less so? Please.

  3. What an absurd strawman! Nobody is worried Adobe is going to charge for flash player. I *wish* they would though, because I view flash as an impediment to progress and it would (as you realize) kill flash to charge for the player.

    So, sure, of course the player is free. It has to be. The software used to create flash content remains expensive, though. This is a huge artificial barrier to entry for content creators, and that is a shame.

    I am writing this from a 2 year old PowerPC Mac running Linux, and to watch YouTube I have to use a bookmarklet to download the flv file and play it in mplayer. Adobe has made it clear that support for Linux on platforms other than 32bit-x86 is not coming anytime soon. Aside from flv videos, Flash sites are completely inaccessible to me.

    I happen to make websites, and my websites work pretty much everywhere. Flash content only works on the few supported Adobe platforms. From where I’m sitting, Adobe is already much worse than Microsoft on the web. The IE marketshare I can deal with. Flash is intolerable.

    Another thing, is that having a single player implementation also has dire security ramifications: what do you imagine exploitable flash zero-days are worth these days?

    Do a search on “monoculture” and tell us again how Adobe isn’t the Microsoft of the web.

  4. Er, Finite… What do you suppose the marketshare of PowerPC Linux is compared to 32bit x86 Linux? Oh and it’s not that you can’t run Flash on Linux…. it’s that it’s not supported in a OS/CPU combination that has a very tiny share of the market.

    Presumably you made the choice to run the combo you have – so take responsibility for the ramifications. of that decision. Once Flash ships on Linuxit will be available on, what… 99% of the desktops? And that’s not enough??

    [Andrew says:] Well put. I was tempted to write something similar in response to the previous comment but less politely. 🙂

  5. Andrew, did you have the final three paragraphs in Rick’s comment? The typographical conventions are unclear to me, but here’s the section which concerns me:

    “Macromedia did drag its feet on Linux support for quite a while, but that was a problem that got fixed around the time that Adobe acquired Macromedia (though I don’t know personally whether or not the Macromedia folks were doing this before the acquisition).”

    You can check the steady availability of investment in Linux playback at The Internet Archive:
    http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.macromedia.com/shockwave/download/alternates

    What made the *effect* different last year is outlined here:
    http://weblogs.macromedia.com/jd/archives/2006/08/linux_observati.cfm

    To “finite” (why hidden?), monoculture is indeed a worry… the story of Black Sigatoka Virus in Cavendish bananas is what sold me, long before I joined Macromedia. Adobe Flash Player is indeed widely spread, but we try not to go deep into each system… that’s the operating system’s job, and Flash tries to provide a safe and predictable abstraction layer atop various machines.

    For a real monoculture danger, check out the effects of electromagnetic pulse, whether nuclear or solar… it can erase the layer of capability *beneath* any operating system. Statistically improbable, but calamitous effects are possible today.

    (Player’s benefit is that it can attempt more than HTML/JS can, and provide it at lower cost too.)

    jd/adobe

    [Andrew says:] I wrote the text in question. I understand the rationale behind the decisions on Linux support, but the fact is Macromedia/Adobe went too long between Linux versions and that the FP7 for Linux had a lot of issues. From the point of view of the community, our rationale doesn’t really matter.

    I agree with your comments on monoculture.

  6. If I worked in the Flash development group at Adobe, I’d be frustrated by the reaction of the Linux community to the release of the 32-bit Flash player (at least the reaction I’ve seen on places like Slashdot). To those Linux users, I’d say even if you think Adobe’s effort falls a bit short, at least acknowledge the fact that they’re trying: say “that’s nice, but could you now do such and such,” not “so what” and “who cares?”

    I’m a web application developer at a state university who uses traditional web technologies (HTML/CSS/JavaScript) on the front end and ColdFusion on the server end to create database-driven web applications. ColdFusion was a Macromedia product before Adobe bought Macromedia. One thing that Adobe got in that acquisition was a vocal and energetic ColdFusion developer community that was accustomed to having their suggestions and complaints heard by a responsive ColdFusion development team. From what I’ve seen, Adobe has taken that cooperative interaction between the product development groups and the end-user developer community and applied it throughout the organization.

    So Linux users, if you want to see more progress with Flash on Linux, reach out to the Adobe folks. Tell them what you’re looking for and maybe give the Adobe team some ideas about how they can make it happen They’ll probably listen to you, if you’re polite about it.
    Couple of other things…
    Finite posted that the software for creating Flash files was expensive. While there’s some truth to that, the particular implementation of Flash that’s of interest to me (as a web application developer) is Flex, and it is possible to build Flex applications that run on the Flash platform with just the SDK (which is free) and a text editor.
    It doesn’t make sense to me when someone says that it’s better to use traditional web technologies to build web sites than Flash because Flash isn’t open source. It seems to me that when most people think of something as open source, they think of something where anyone can go inside and change the way it works to suit their needs or to make it better. Can you change the way HTML works? Can you change the way a particular web browser processes your JavaScript (don’t I wish!)? Yes, the traditional web standards are overseen by a collaborative organization rather than a corporation, but still, how much say do you have in what that organization decides to do?
    Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Adobe is trying to replace traditional web technologies with Flash. Adobe continues to enhance their Dreamweaver product to make it easier to work with CSS and JavaScript. They provide a very unique AJAX framework called Spry which is free and runs on regular HTML pages, and their upcoming Apollo product will let you use either Flex or HTML/CSS/JavaScript to create desktop applications. They realize that there are occasions when traditional web technologies are the best way to achieve your goals, and they offer Flex and Flash as alternatives.

    [Andrew says]Thanks for your defense of our actions.

  7. The readiness with which you adopt and congratulate the condescending attitude of “your marketshare is small so you shouldn’t expect anything to work, its your own fault for running an OS/CPU combo Adobe decided not to support” is why your company is the (worse-than)-Microsoft despot of the web.

    Despotism sucks.

    Because of Flash, Adobe gets to decide which platforms are able to experience a large portion of the WWW, watch YouTube etc, therefore Adobe is the gatekeeper much moreso than Microsoft today. Nokia recently shipped a new linux device with Flash 8 on ARM, having paid some license fee (so flash player isn’t really free everywhere, just places where Adobe needs it to be). Can other Linux-on-ARM users run Flash 8? For _any_ price?

    I’m _not_ complaining about Flash software not being Open Source, or Free Software, or anything like that. I’m complaining that the Flash format has one implementation, and the vendor of that implementation thinks that there are 3 operating systems and 2 processor types in the personal computer world, and they don’t even support all possible combinations of those! The situation with (obsolete versions of!) Flash being licensed (exclusively to other vendors) for only a handful of the many linux ARM devices is yet another slap in the face from the despots at Adobe.

    Of course, many of Flash’s biggest problems would vanish if Flash were open sourced, but if Adobe wants to keep it proprietary _and_ make it a defacto requirement for modern web browsing _and_ keep millions of users needlessly locked out of it… then you shouldn’t waste your time arguing you’re not the Microsoft of the web. You’re worse. Face it.

    [Andrew says] For the record, I never said the words for which you criticize my “condescending attitude” – that was someone else who commented on the article.

    As for Flash Player availability, I think Adobe’s record is pretty darn good – the Flash Player can run on 99.5% of the desktop computers available today. Would open sourcing Flash help the other 0.5% that you belong to? Yes. Is Adobe being a “despot” because we haven’t addressed the needs of that 0.5%? No. I’m sorry you are being inconvenienced, but your inconvenience doesn’t translate into any meaningful effect on the market for desktop operating systems or CPUs. And if you can’t show such an effect, it is difficult to argue that there is any sort of despotic abuse of power happening here.

    As for Flash on Mobile, the situation there is a bit different. You are correct that the Flash Lite platform is not available for free – it is currently licensed on a royalty basis. We don’t discriminate against particular platforms or processor types – any hardware vendor who wanted Flash Lite on their platform can get a license if they are willing to pay. As you yourself point out, Nokia did just that. It doesn’t matter if licensees use ARM or something else – Flash Lite can run on just about anything, and the hardware vendors can do the porting themselves. Again, I realize that this isn’t the same thing as open sourcing Flash Lite and letting everyone and anyone implement it for free in their devices, but I refuse to apologize for the fact that we as a company need to make money. The mobile tools market isn’t large enough today to make the strategy we use for the desktop world work. That might change in the future as mobile content grows in popularity.

  8. To Brian:
    Don’t assume Slashdot is in any way representative of the Linux community. A few years ago, when Linux was still reserved to a small fraction of nerds and geeks, it may have been the case, but today many Linux users are like any other computer user (this may be seen via the side effect that open-source projects care much more about usability: think Ubuntu, KDE4, etc…) and a large part of them even do not speak English. Slashdot is and has always been populated with trolls who enjoy flamebait and offensive wording, and many of the most vocal of Slashdot readers (which aren’t the majority) have strong ideological points of view. So while I am a frequent Slashdot reader I would not see it as representative in any way.

    Back to the point: Most Linux users I know are indeed very grateful to Adobe for supporting the Flash player on the (x86) Linux platform, even if they are not the most vocal ones. Of course, there are still areas where Linux users would appreciate more Adobe engagement, e.g. a player for the x86-64 architecture: x86-64 users miss a 64-bit player and have to use hacks to use the 32-bit one in a 64-bit environment; the availability of some products of the Adobe line, like Flash, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, on Linux; and for sure a few steps to more openness for Flash and/or other products or formats.

    I understand that it does not make sense for Adobe to invest time and money in ports to fewer-used OSes, as they would not bring ROI, but I also understand the users of these less-mainstream platforms who kind of feel that they are excluded from the extension of the Web the Flash player is.
    While I am no expert on the matter and the various difficulties (technical or not) in supporting these platforms, I think that if the users of these less-known platforms really care about getting Flash to work for them and are motivated enough, there may be two solutions to the support of these platforms: a community could form to help Adobe to port the player for a lower cost, e.g. by using volunteers or donation-funded developers (external to Adobe) to do the porting, while agreeing to an NDA (compare Blackdown Java); Adobe may go for more openness and change its licensing terms for the Flash specifications to allow open-source developers to use them to develop a player; coherence between the two implementations may be achieved by a certification à la Java with a test suite required to advertise Flash compatibility.
    Of course, open-sourcing could also be an option (and while forking is always seen as a danger, I don’t think it is a real threat: even big and popular projects OpenOffice, Firefox, PHP, MySQL, Qt, etc. do not have widespread forks, apart from the few patches each distribution may experiment or need for better integration, that are more than often forwarded and merged upstream for the next release). But while I personally think it would benefit Adobe I can understand the fears and also some arguments against open-sourcing one of your Crown’s jewels. I think one could resume it in the following three points: how much would it cost to open-source it (infrastructure for external contributions, legal burden, …), what are the risks (forks, legal risks, etc.) and how much would in bring (in terms of contributions: code, bug corrections, innovations…, and maybe on the image front as open source seems to be trendy for now :-)). Companies reason on costs and profits, not ideologies (apart if an ideology lowers costs or can bring more profits: think e.g. of the importance today of corporate image and ethics).

    And to conclude, to Finite:
    I understand your frustration, but seriously, if you were Adobe, would you do it? If yes, why (which profits would it bring)? Even giant volunteer projects like Debian have problems maintaining ports on architectures like ARM, and smaller projects simply cannot afford to port to ARM or PowerPC. If you really want it, why not donate time or money for the development of a player for ypur platform, be it by Adobe or an Adobe partner, or by a completely independant team like Gnash?
    Nothing is free. Adobe developers need money for a living, and they earn it because their product is good and popular; they port only to mainstream platforms because their baker only sells bread to paying clients. Maybe a money-based society is not the ideal system, but as far as I know it’s still the best we found yet, and I can’t think of a baker accepting lines of code as a mean of payment :-).
    To finish, on Microsoft, I think they limit your computing experience much more than Adobe does. While no YouTube videos surely means less fun, no 100% Microsoft Office compatibility in other office suites means you cannot communicate with a good part of the planet which uses Microsoft products. Adobe formats do not (yet?) have the importance Microsoft formats have, and the licensing terms of their specifications, while not always perfectly open, are light-years ahead of Microsoft’s documentations.

    To Adobe as a whole: While not perfect, you deliver great products. And while most of us keep their eyes open and don’t hesitate to express criticism when needed, I think we can all say that in general you had a very positive impact on computing and seem to have ethics not always found in other companies. Critics are always more vocal, and each good product you make raises the bar for the next one, so don’t be too surprised to hear the negative arguments more often than the positive ones, even if the weigth of the arguments themselves is marginal.

    We Linux users don’t hate you! 🙂

  9. Give away the technology?

    The way I keep seeing the product landscape, CS Design Suite excluded is that all roads lead back to Adobe Live Cycle. Coldfusion 8 has hooks into it now, Apollo has PDF support for it and now Adobe Live Cycle Data Services is the bridging between the two.

    Flash Player sits quite snuggly inside the corporate firewalls and it has only a downside of being used for concepts like YouTube – yet – Adobe are smart enough to realise that with that level of seeding, how can one leveridge this into a more profitable excercise.

    The way I see it, Adobe have two choices.

    – Keep the “Web Designers/Developers” happy with a few bones here and there, to sustain the market share that Flash Player has but at the same time, shift focus away from Microsoft products (ie notice how Flex Data Services for example has no .NET integration. Yet Coldfusion 8 does?)

    – Re-distribute the resources around making Adobe Live Cycle more relevant, as this is the only ticket into the Enterprise market Adobe has. It’s why concepts like Adobe Breeze have a new name, Adobe Acrobat Connect (brilliant branding decision, Acrobat Reader + Flash Player, hey that’s a safe distribution model).

    So is Apollo made for the “web guy or girl” or is it realistically yet another seedling targeted towards the enterprise market squarely.

    Apollo being used by SAP – brilliant, gives street cred.

    Is Adobe looking to be Microsoft? Yup, I’d argue it is and wants to – but masking it behind doing it all for the “web guy/girl” is kind of silly if you want my opinion 🙂

    Scott Barnes
    Developer Evangelist
    Microsoft.

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