Quark v Adobe - Crisis? Which Crisis?

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Quark v Adobe

Tom Arah explores the apparent crisis at Adobe and looks at what the future might hold.

Acrobat PDF - the future of publishing

By the time you read this the shock bid by Quark to take over Adobe will be old news. Moreover the fact that Quark has agreed to drop the bid might make the matter seem pretty irrelevant - a storm in a teacup. What the bid has achieved though is to highlight the parlous state that Adobe has got itself into with a share price dropping by more than half over the year to a five year low. The very fact that Quark - a private company with a turnover less than a quarter of Adobe's - could contemplate buying out the software giant is not just embarrassing but seriously worrying. After all Adobe is the dominant and driving force in the computer-based publishing and graphics industry. The obvious question is how has Adobe has got itself into this mess and, more importantly, how is it going to get out?

The Beginning of the Industry

To get to grips with what's happening today you have to understand Adobe's history. The company was founded back in 1982 by Charles Geschke and John Warnock both of whom had been working in the seminal Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The product they built their company on wasn't an application but rather a technology. Postscript is a Page Description Language (PDL) that enables the same text and graphics to be output on a Postscript laser printer exactly as they are from a Postscript-driven imagesetter. This consistency means that a computer-based designer can create work that they know should reliably produce finished commercial print. Today 95% of the commercial print you see around you will have been produced via Postscript. In short, without Postscript and without Adobe there wouldn't be a computer-based publishing industry.

Unfortunately for Adobe the Postscript technology that underlies the industry is largely invisible and so is easily overlooked compared to the applications like XPress that are the industry's chalk-face. Not that Adobe does badly when it comes to applications. Its Illustrator program builds on Postscript by producing Encapsulated Postscript (EPS) vector-based drawings that can be reliably incorporated into work for high-end output, while Photoshop does the same job for scanned TIFFs. After its buyout of Aldus in 1994, Adobe was able to add a central DTP component with PageMaker and a few years later it completed its print-based portfolio by buying in the long document specialist FrameMaker.

Adobe's early history was strongly tied to the Mac and the dedicated design studio, but the company was quick to see the need to broaden its appeal to the PC and the office-based user. Using corporate favourites like PageMaker, a successful Windows presence was established so that over 60% of the company's revenue now comes from the PC. Adobe was also an early pioneer of cross-media publishing. Print remains central, but with video-editing programs like Premiere and After Effects, Adobe is also well set to cater for the multimedia future. Most important of all, in its development of Postscript into the Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF), it has a unique technology with the potential to straddle paper and electronic publishing (see RW 28 and 44).

A no-lose situation?

With a cross-platform, cross-media portfolio built on the twin strengths of the Postscript standard and an unmatched range of professional applications, it looks as if Adobe should be in a no-lose situation. In business terms once the user has been persuaded to buy one application, the "synergy" between it and the other Adobe applications can be "leveraged" to sell the next. In other words once you've chosen Photoshop, you're more likely to choose Illustrator, ImageReady, Premiere and so on. The obvious comparison is with Microsoft which has used its control of the underlying OS to feed into the success of its various Office applications and vice versa. So why isn't Adobe the "creative Microsoft" with a share price to match? To understand what's gone wrong it's necessary to look in more depth both at Adobe's Postscript foundations and its range of applications.

At first sight it seems almost ridiculous that the company that developed Postscript and so created the modern publishing industry should be in financial trouble. After all if Adobe received even a tiny fraction of a penny for every page produced with its technology it would now dwarf Microsoft as the world's richest company. Of course though that's not how the system works. Instead Adobe gets its money through one-off licensing of Postscript to hardware manufacturers. Unfortunately for Adobe the high original price of licences was enough to scare off mainstream users and to encourage Apple and Microsoft to build their own print solutions into the operating system. On the PC the arrival of Windows 3.1 and WYSIWYG output meant that the advantage of Postscript for direct output largely vanished and drove Postscript into a high-end niche.

The real money that was made from the Postscript revolution then was made by the high-end application developers - ironically much of it by Quark. The huge advantage applications have is that users can see what they do and what benefits they offer and so are willing to pay for them. Adobe's response has been to reinvent the Postscript PDL as the Acrobat PDF - a new format that lies somewhere between a technology and an application. Using the freely available Reader it's possible to open, view and print these files which immediately makes their role and benefits visible. This time, however, Adobe isn't making the mistake of giving away the family jewels. The format is open, the Reader is free and files can be created by any application, but to truly make the most of PDFs you really need Adobe software ranging from dedicated Acrobat programs like Exchange, Distiller and Capture through to existing but now Acrobat-friendly programs like PageMaker and FrameMaker.

PDF Problems

An awful lot is riding on Acrobat and in many ways Adobe is betting its future on the format. If the gamble succeeds Adobe will redefine the concept of computer-based publishing and in the process regain dominance of the market that it created. The problem is that at the moment Acrobat is not living up to expectations. When Acrobat was first developed it was promoted as a panacea, the universal document format that would allow people to exchange information irrespective or platform, application or media. But that was before the Net took off. Adobe has reluctantly had to accept the user's choice of the arguably inferior HTML standard for information exchange and with it a new more limited role for Acrobat.

The PDF's exchange function is still important but it is as a route to paper print that the medium will succeed or fail. And this is the real problem. The Reader program enables output to a local device but such direct print is inevitably slow and awkward. The new breed of Postscript 3 Extreme workgroup printers offer one solution to this with parallel processing and in-built imposition and binding, but the real limit to the take-up of Acrobat is the inability to produce colour separations. As the format is built on Postscript this should be the PDF's unbeatable strength but, apart from Illustrator's ability to open and separate one PDF page at a time, this sine qua non is missing. In short while there is much talk of the PDF workflow, without professional quality separation, it currently leads nowhere.

Acrobat sales now account for 5% of Adobe's total revenue and the percentage is rising. The potential is undoubtedly there, but with such a hole at the centre of the Postscript/PDF strategy, it's not surprising that the company should be faltering. Unfortunately taking a closer look at the company's range of applications reveals similar problems.

Other Problems

In terms of usability, Adobe makes much of the benefits of a common user interface across its applications. The benefits of consistency certainly exist, but it's no good conforming to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately the underlying Adobe interface has developed haphazardly over time and shows it. The lack of features such as button bars, context-sensitive option bars, font previews and property boxes makes you wonder if Adobe has ever looked at the competition. Instead the user is bombarded with an ever-increasing range of floating palettes that you can almost guarantee will be hidden or floating in the wrong place whenever you need them! No doubt the palette system makes it easy for the software developers to add more functionality, but it doesn't make it easier for the user to access it.

In terms of functionality too, Adobe has lost its leading edge. In particular a natural bias towards Acrobat has led it to underestimate the importance of the Net. While Macromedia has reinvented itself with programs like Flash, Fireworks and DreamWeaver, Adobe's web offerings based on the under-powered PageMill have been conservative and unexciting. Worse, Adobe has deliberately handicapped its own programs to fit in with its over-arching strategy. The decision to leave Illustrator only capable of producing single pages, for example, makes complete sense in the Adobe masterplan as it is the role of the DTP solutions PageMaker and FrameMaker to produce multiple page publications. In the real world, of course, users will look at immediate benefits in terms of usability and functionality and buy Corel Draw.

Adobe has failed completely to see things from the user's perspective. The clearest recent example of how Adobe has got things the wrong way round is in the development of ImageReady which floats off the Web capabilities that should be integrated in Photoshop as a separate program. No doubt in Adobe's internal business presentation ImageReady will look great, filling a niche, complementing other programs and promising more income. What will happen instead is that dissatisfied customers won't just refuse to buy ImageReady - they won't buy Photoshop.

Hole at the Centre

By confusing its own interests with those of its customers, Adobe has largely thrown away the competitive edge that its unmatched range of applications should offer. But it's not just the implementation of the strategy that has gone wrong. There is a core hole at the centre of Adobe's applications just as there is with its Acrobat technology. The problem is with the DTP application that must lie at the centre of any publishing system. This might seem ridiculous at first sight with PageMaker and FrameMaker seeming to cover all short and long document needs between them. However both programs have fatal flaws. PageMaker's central text block approach is flexible and easy to use but it is proving increasingly under-powered. FrameMaker's frame-based approach meanwhile offers more control, but it is overly technical and corporate-orientated.

Between Adobe's two DTP offerings is a space large enough to drive a coach and horses through, which of course is exactly what Quark has done with XPress. In this light the merger of Quark and Adobe would seem to be ideal. After all, in many ways Quark has taken the money that Adobe had earned with its invention of Postscript, so wouldn't it make sense for the two high-end print-orientated companies to pool their resources and applications? Wouldn't it make sense to have XPress, Photoshop and Illustrator all pulling together?

In comes Quark

This was the rosy scenario Quark presented in its bid, but the design community was unimpressed and its near universal condemnation of the idea eventually forced a climbdown. I can't say I'm sorry. I've criticised Adobe for confusing its own interests with those of its users, but Quark doesn't even seem to feel obliged to disguise where its priorities lie. There's no doubt that XPress does its central job well but its exorbitant price, glacial development and the almost blind eye it has turned to alternative platforms and alternative standards have combined to leave its users in a high-end ghetto. And a ghetto that is looking less high-end as each month goes by.

A comparison of Quark's own attempt to develop from paper into electronic publishing highlights the difference between the two companies approach to publishing. Quark's Immedia technology is clearly inferior to Adobe's Acrobat as it works primarily by rasterising pages into low quality, high file size bitmaps. This is bad enough but far worse is the proprietary nature of the technology which is only available as an expensive add-on to existing XPress users and only then on the Mac! What is completely unforgivable is that Quark has ensured that its users have no other choice if they want to move into electronic publishing by failing to provide any Acrobat or HTML support in XPress. Customer-driven is not the phrase that springs to mind.

If Quark's interests aren't necessarily for the good of the user, what motivated its surprise bid for Adobe? My fear was that the company had spotted a golden opportunity in Adobe's faltering to seize control of the entire commercial Postscript-based print market and to move it (back) into a Mac-based proprietary niche. It's a fear I still haven't quite shaken off but now with Apple replacing Quark as the potential bidder. On reflection, however, I think Quark's motive was much more immediate. The clue is in the letter to Adobe where Quark boss Fred Ebrahimi talks of "divesting" PageMaker and "K-2". Everyone could see the clash with PageMaker but what exactly is K-2?

Adobe's Secret Weapon

K-2 is Adobe's secret development of an entirely new breed of application. Details are naturally hard to come by, but from leaks it's clear that it is a high-end publishing application that internally is being called the "Quark killer." What potentially makes the program so radical is that it is said to offer both native PDF editing and output. If K-2 delivers on this promise it will fill both of the central holes in Adobe's technological and application strategies at a stroke. With professional outputting control the Acrobat PDF flow will finally be complete while a more powerful DTP application will give Adobe's other programs a natural focus. In other words, with K-2 all the pieces of the Adobe jigsaw come together. In this reading, suddenly it is XPress that will look under-powered and outdated and Quark will be the company in crisis and with nowhere to go. No wonder Quark felt obliged to try something.

Well that's the theory. Of course the K-2-based redemption is a lot to pull off with one release and I reserve the right to be critical of the program when it finally appears. But it in a way that's secondary. What K-2 embodies is what makes Adobe so different from Quark - an underlying vision. It was this vision that delivered Postscript and the industry as we know it today and it's the same vision that underlies the promise of Acrobat and the industry as we'll know it in the future. The successful development of Postscript into PDF will revolutionize the design industry and I know I'm not the only one who can't wait for the time when I no longer have to bundle separate publication files, graphics and fonts onto a disk - and still cross my fingers that everything will come out fine.

If it does succeed though Acrobat will have done something much more important than just making the professional designer's life easier. What's really significant about Acrobat is that it has the potential to break down barriers. It can break down the barriers between platforms and applications and it can also break down the barriers between paper and electronic media. Most important of all though it has the potential to break down the divide between the studio and the office, between professional and desktop design. When any user can simply check the PDF output from any application on their own screen and printer and be confident that that's exactly how their commercial print will turn out, then the desktop publishing revolution will finally be complete.

As Charles Geschke and John Warnock know from their days at PARC, publishing is in essence simply the transmission of information and as such its role lies right at the heart of information technology. In the Adobe vision, publishing is not a complex, intimidating and expensive proprietary print-based niche but rather an integral and central part of computing in general. For all the company's faults and problems I agree with that vision completely and sincerely hope and believe that Adobe will achieve it - for all our sakes.


Tom Arah

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