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Adobe and Macromedia: bad news for online tools

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Comment In the early 90s I attended a Seybold-sponsored debate between Adobe co-founder John Warnock and Yuri Rubinsky, principal of SGML and HTML tools company SoftQuad. Acrobat and its associated Portable Document Format (PDF) had recently been launched and were still little known or understood. The good-natured Rubinsky argued convincingly that structured information - then SGML, now XML - was the way forward, and that Adobe's unstructured PDFs were a dead end.

Well, Rubinsky was proved right. But Adobe's great insight was recognising the importance of the facsimile, and the volume of unstructured digital documents we would need to share (including legacy digital and analogue documents). Seeing how long the road was before the dead end was reached may be the last great insight that fine company.

In the mid-90s, the point at which it became impossible for the software industry to ignore the internet, Adobe purchased Ceneca for its pioneering WYSIWYG HTML-editing PageMill software. Around the same time Macromedia purchased FutureSplash and re-named it Flash. PageMill is a footnote in the history of web tools. Flash is becoming a more compelling story of digital interfaces, and one in which Adobe, despite its vector-graphics heritage, has barely a chapter.

Some years later Adobe purchased GoLive, the German web-site-editing-and-management software outfit. Macromedia acquired web backend tools company Allaire and integrated it with its GoLive equivalent, Dreamweaver. Today GoLive is an also-ran next to current category leader Dreamweaver.

Adobe continues to add features to its flagship Acrobat product, while failing to address basic failings such as the inability to copy continuous text from even single-column PDFs. Meanwhile its codebase has become so bloated most Macintosh users who want to open a PDF before lunchtime switched to Apple's Preview as their viewer of choice.

Adobe's other successes are in the traditional publishing and time-based media arena, with its Photoshop and Illustrator packages, Premiere and After Effects motion applications, and its InDesign page-makeup tool. The latter has finally sunk Quark XPress, a product of one of the few companies that 'got' the Internet less than Adobe.

This points to Adobe's Achilles Heel. It grew out of research on page description languages, by Warnock and colalborator Charles Geschke at Xerox PARC, that became PostScript. Creating tools to manipulate these 'visual objects'is where its energy and investment still go - and will continue to go while the publishers and others that buy its products fail to develop Internet-driven business and production models. Macromedia's history is in interactive and CD-ROM tools. The customers for these tools moved almost wholly to the Web, ridding of Macromedia of legacy product categories to support.

The acquisition of the much smaller Macromedia won't tip the balance of Adobe's activity to the web, and it is likely to put a brake on Macromedia's innovative and energetic development around Dreamweaver and Flash. This trend will be reinforced by the conservative dictates of the corporate market Adobe is increasingly embracing.

Most mergers and acquisitions are about cost-cutting, and many are a sign of the failure of the acquirer to develop products and services that can compete with those of the acquiree. Despite Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen's statement that the acquisition "is not a consolidation play", this is the certainly the case with its take-over of Macromedia. Dreamweaver won't suffer as badly from the poor parenting as PageMill and GoLive experienced, but neither is it likely to flourish, and that is bad news for online development and collaboration.

Yuri Rubinsky is still right. Perhaps he didn't appreciate how long it would take industry and government to really 'get' the digital and networked information and collaboration. Sadly he is no longer with us. But I have no doubt he is turning in his grave. ®

Nico Macdonald has been writing about design for the web since 1995. He is the author of What is Web Design? (RotoVision, 2003) ISBN 2-88046-686-5

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