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Steve Jobs' death clears way for Adobe CTO defection

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Long-standing chief technology officer Kevin Lynch has left Adobe, but why?

Adobe has just announced first quarter 2013 results that were a little ahead of its target and show strong take-up of Creative Cloud - by which it offers up its cloudy software services for subscription rather than one-off purchase - roughly akin to an Office 265 for Creative Suite. There was more significant news though, noted in a form 8-K SEC filing:

On March 18, 2013, Kevin Lynch resigned from his position as Executive Vice President, Chief Technology Officer, of Adobe Systems Incorporated, effective March 22, 2013, to pursue other opportunities.

Adobe later issued a statement:

Kevin Lynch, Adobe CTO, is leaving the company effective March 22 to take a position at Apple. We will not be replacing the CTO position; responsibility for technology development lies with our business unit heads under the leadership of Adobe Systems CEO Shantanu Narayen.

The 46-year-old joined Adobe via its acquisition of Macromedia, the company which developed Flash, in December 2005. But Lynch had roots in Apple software development. “I was a Mac software developer. I helped develop the first Mac release of FrameMaker and then led their core technology team,” Lynch writes on his personal site.

Later he joined General Magic, an Apple spin-off, where he worked on the user interface for a handheld device.

He might have been expressing his love for the Mac, but it's Flash that Lynch has been closely associated with in recent years. And Steve Jobs barred Flash from all our futures by blocking it from the iPhone and iPad.

That's making Lynch's hire as much a head-scratcher as a craw-sticker for the Apple faithful, none more so than fan blogger John Gruber who has spent years crowing about the inevitable brilliance of Apple's Jobsian way.

Flash boom bang

So, why is Lynch leaving Adobe? The news comes in the context of turbulent change for the company.

Adobe’s product strategy was once built on Flash, a strategy that was killed by Apple which refused to allow it on the iPhone and iPad.

“Flash is a cross-platform development tool. It is not Adobe’s goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross-platform apps. And Adobe has been painfully slow to adopt enhancements to Apple’s platforms,” said Steve Jobs in his Thoughts on Flash, in April 2010.

Apple followed up with a change in its terms for developers, later withdrawn, that required iOS applications to be “originally written in Objective-C, C, C++ or JavaScript”. It was a war against Flash, won by Apple.

The impact on Adobe came to light gradually. In October 2011 the company acquired Nitobi and with it PhoneGap, technology to wrap HTML applications as native code for mobile devices. That was a sign of a new direction, yet the company’s MAX conference that month was still more focused on Flash than HTML technology.

Radical change followed. In November 2011 Adobe told financial analysts in New York that it was investing in HTML tooling, repositioning Flash to a lesser role, and focusing on digital media and marketing. That announcement marked the end of Flash as a strategic product for Adobe, taking many in the Adobe community by surprise. “Leaving the Adobe MAX conference one month ago I felt reassured that the future of Flash and Flex were bright. Now I feel betrayed,” said one signatory to an online petition in response.

The move was nevertheless the right one for Adobe, which in the circumstances has managed a smooth transition, not only from Flash to HTML tooling, but also towards a business model based on subscriptions and cloud services. Lynch oversaw that transition, and most recently was working on linking Creative Cloud, based on Adobe’s design software, with the Digital Marketing Suite, based on web analytics.

Cloud Man?

One interpretation is that Apple considers Lynch a strategic hire to assist with its own transition towards cloud services, and to realise the potential of iCloud, though according to CNBC Lynch will be reporting to hardware guy Bob Mansfield, senior veep of technologies. That said, Apple announced in June 2012 that Mansfield is retiring, with his role to be taken by another engineering vice president, Dan Riccio. It is not yet clear what Lynch will be doing at Apple.

It is also possible that Lynch had become a poor fit at Adobe, following its transition to digital media and digital marketing.

“This news is pretty big, but bigger for Adobe than Apple,” said RedMonk analyst James Governor. “Since Shantanu was handed the reins to Omniture [web analytics] it hasn't been clear what exactly Lynch's role is. Kevin Lynch is a UX guy, not a Big Data/marketing analytics guy - but at Adobe the money is now in marketing analytics. So it’s no surprise at all Lynch would leave for Apple.”

Some observers consider that Lynch was too much wedded to Flash to be comfortable in the new Adobe. I have heard that he was opposed to the moves to cut back on Flash investment, placing him in an uncomfortable position once the deal was done. This part, at least, made Lynch a bad hire according to fan chief Gruber. “I get that the guy worked for Adobe and had to play for the home team, but as CTO he backed a dying technology for years too long,” the Fireball splutters.

One thing is for sure: Apple is unlikely to have hired Lynch for his Flash expertise. ®

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