Is it creative fusion or meltdown?Tom Arah tries to work out what Adobe’s proposed buyout of Macromedia will mean for the creative community.
There’s no doubt that Adobe’s planned $3.4 billion takeover of Macromedia is shock news (though by the time you read this it will be slightly old shock news). Rumours have abounded for years that Microsoft was about to snap up Macromedia, but it never crossed my mind that Adobe would prove to be the predator. The shake-up it promises for the publishing, graphics and creative community as a whole could hardly be bigger. So just what is going on?
The nearest equivalent situation happened in 1998 (see RW51) when it was an ailing Adobe that was the target and the cash-rich Quark that was the marauder. There was an undeniable logic to that proposed deal - bringing together Adobe, the developers of the PostScript language on which the commercial publishing industry is built, and Quark, the developers of QuarkXPress the dominant PostScript authoring package. In fact the real motive was Quark’s desperate attempt to remove the threat of Adobe’s about-to-be-launched “Quark killer”, InDesign. Thankfully the overwhelmingly negative reaction from Adobe and the creative community at large stopped the proposal in its tracks.
The parallels are clear, but this latest takeover bid is different for a number of reasons. To begin with, you couldn’t imagine a more unlikely pairing. Back in 1994 Adobe acquired Aldus to get its hands on PageMaker and as part of the deal had to choose between its own Illustrator drawing package and the more powerful Aldus FreeHand. It decided to pass on FreeHand to Macromedia, a multimedia company then built around the CD-ROM authoring package Director, and, in so doing it created its own biggest rival. In fact Adobe and Macromedia were more than rivals. Bad blood flowed so freely over the years, including various legal actions, that during the post-announcement conference call the assembled Adobe and Macromedia directors were happy to describe themselves as former “enemies”.
When times are hard even former enemies are forced to rethink their relations, but again that’s not the case here. After Quark’s unwelcome overtures, Bruce Chizen, a former Microsoft director who had arrived at Adobe via the Aldus takeover, was appointed as CEO. Under his leadership the company has gone from strength to strength thanks largely to the success of Acrobat and the consolidation of its major bitmap, vector and DTP flagships into the Creative Suite. Macromedia meanwhile under its equally effective and forward-looking CEO Rob Burgess has expanded from Director and FreeHand to build an impressive portfolio of software, most notably the web-based MX apps: Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash – the latter acquired after Adobe had turned it down! In other words both companies are booming and with plenty of scope for more growth. In short there is no obviously apparent reason why the two “enemies” should decide to join forces.
Ultimately, the most important difference compared to Quark’s hostile takeover attempt is that this time, with both companies signed up to the deal, there seems little chance that it won’t go through. So what does this mean to us as end users? The bottom line is that from 2006 onwards we are going to be dealing with a single dominant player across the entire creative spectrum from video and multimedia authoring through print and electronic publishing to Web design and development. And, as the example of Quark shows only too well, monopolies are inherently bad news for the end user removing the main motor for innovation and the main incentive to keep pricing attractive.
How the news was broken.
In fact the situation here is much worse than it was with Quark. In particular the attempts during the conference call to boost the competitive credentials of CorelDRAW - which apparently outsells both Illustrator and FreeHand in Germany - and the open-source KIllustrator - which I’d never heard of and has been discontinued! - were frankly laughable. Once this deal has gone through, even the possibility of realistic competition across the entire creative spectrum is removed as all these applications work hand-in-hand as part of larger workflows. It would be like trying to topple Microsoft and its Office applications.
It’s not just the range and integration of applications that makes both suites so impregnable, it’s their core underlying technologies: Acrobat PDF and Flash SWF respectively. There’s just no chance for a competitor to produce new technologies with similar power and penetration to challenge these industry standards. In short it was only Macromedia that could present a viable alternative to Adobe and vice versa and from next year that factor will be removed from the equation. If Adobe decides to go down the Quark route, there won’t be an InDesign waiting in the wings. We’ll be stuck with what we’re given and what we’re charged for it.
The lack of viable competition from outside the combined roster of applications is potentially bad news in the long term, but even worse news and more immediate is the competition within the combined suite. Just as duplicated jobs will be shed, each application will have to prove its worth to the new combined venture or it will be dropped. Naturally all users will be looking to their own preferred applications and hoping that they will survive the cut. Adobe and Macromedia refuse to give details of their plans here, indeed claim that they have not even discussed them because it is illegal to do so until the deal has gone through. However, it’s possible to make informed predictions.
The good news is that the cuts are likely to be fewer and less severe than they might have been. Over the last few years, both companies have played to their strengths and as a result moved off in different directions with Adobe led by Acrobat towards the paper/document space and Macromedia led by Flash towards the web/multimedia space. This broad split between design and development means that there are large areas where there is no overlap and so it’s safe to predict that Photoshop, InDesign, Acrobat and Flash will continue much as they are.
This still leaves three major areas of direct competition: web imaging, web authoring and vector drawing. In terms of the Web there is little doubt that the Macromedia applications are far superior to their bloated counterparts. However Adobe is the major partner here and, as it showed after the Aldus takeover, there is always the possibility that it will stick with its own. Thankfully the recent release of the Creative Suite suggests that this is not the case. The latest ImageReady CS2 has seen no new development and its future demise has been announced, while the limited work done on GoLive CS2 in terms of mobile and SVG authoring should be easily transportable to Dreamweaver. Of course this is bad news for current users of ImageReady and GoLive, but the extra power and productivity provided by Fireworks and especially Dreamweaver are undeniable compensation.
The lack of development in GoLive CS2 suggests it is a likely casualty of the shake-up.
The real battleground then is once again between Illustrator and FreeHand. Again a compelling case can be made for the superiority of the Macromedia product with its more streamlined interface and working approach, multiple page support and tight integration with Flash. On the other hand there is little chance that Adobe is going to reverse its former decision and jump ship now. And this time I have to say that it will be right. In the past Illustrator was allowed to fall hopelessly far behind the competition, but recent releases have shown some impressive creative innovation such as the introduction of gradient mesh handling, non-destructive vector and bitmap styling and Illustrator CS2’s live trace and live paint capabilities (see RW129). By comparison Macromedia has been playing creative catch-up, has virtually given up on FreeHand’s print-based credentials and has allowed the program to slip a generation (it’s still “FreeHand MX” rather than “MX 2004”). Unless the upcoming Studio release sees a major upgrade, FreeHand and its loyal users could well prove the major casualties of the Adobe takeover. Again.
For some users then the immediate repercussions of the buyout will be painful, but benefits will also flow. After all, it is almost certainly the best-of-breed applications that will survive and these should become more affordable with suite-level pricing. More importantly, when Macromedia has been completely absorbed, the resulting Adobe will be able to provide tighter integration and improved functionality across the entire creative spectrum with features such as SmartObject PSD support in Dreamweaver and Flash, more efficient InDesign XML-based repurposing, perhaps the integration of DVD Encore and Director and so on.
The potential for synergy between the authoring apps is there but, as it stands, I don’t think that this is enough to outweigh the disadvantages. More to the point I don’t think that it would be enough to persuade Macromedia to accept the takeover - after all it has the most to lose from the deal. To begin with, thanks to Dreamweaver, Macromedia effectively owns the professional HTML/ CSS web authoring world while its ColdFusion server technology provides an integrated and powerful solution for data-driven enterprise sites. And for those web publishers looking to deliver more than just pages, Macromedia’s Flash has moved far beyond its vector animation origins to provide a one stop multimedia solution now including the all-important FLV web video support (see RW124).
And this is only the beginning. Macromedia’s vision for Flash is much more all-encompassing. With the development of ActionScript, Flash now offers a powerful Java-style universal web application development platform. With its development of Flash Communications Server and now Breeze technologies, it offers real-time communication and collaboration. And with its server-side integration via XML through Macromedia’s dedicated Flash Remoting and Flex technologies, it enables the delivery of live customized Flash content. Put it all together and you have a Rich Internet Applications (RIA), a million miles away from the traditional static web page. In short, the Flash player provides everything that the enterprise-level publisher needs to bypass the browser and the inherent restrictions of HTML and to deliver the next-generation web experience – live, interactive and rich.
With Rich Internet Applications, Flash can deliver the next-generation Web experience.
But of course this is the problem. There’s one company that has a strong vested interest in users not bypassing the browser and it’s the one company that you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of. With Internet Explorer, Microsoft won the browser wars and as a result in many ways it controls the Web - but it’s not getting much benefit from it. Just as QuarkXPress stole the PostScript revenue from Adobe, Dreamweaver has seized the professional web authoring market. Far worse, Macromedia has developed its InDesign equivalent with Flash, a potential “browser killer”, and the only real threat to Microsoft’s future dominance of the Web. With so much at stake, no wonder there were rumours that Microsoft was interested in buying up Macromedia.
Macromedia isn’t the only threat to Microsoft’s profit line; the same is true of Adobe. Frankly I don’t think that Microsoft cares too much about the high-end creative apps; much more significant are the encroachments Adobe has made into its own territory. With the total dominance of its Office suite, Microsoft should by all rights own the document space, but with Acrobat’s cross-platform, cross-application authoring allied with superior security, signing, form handling, archiving and collaboration, Adobe is forging an increasingly central role in the office. And with new capabilities such as its LiveCycle server-side solutions and on-the-fly PDF creation, Adobe like Macromedia is leveraging its technology and player presence to tap into the lucrative enterprise markets.
Not suprisingly Microsoft is planning to react, and its intentions are becoming clearer in its plans for the next release of Windows: “Longhorn”. And the ramifications for Macromedia and Adobe - and everyone else - are enormous. With Longhorn, Microsoft isn’t just planning a new version of Windows but rather a “technology wave” that will integrate the OS with servers, browser, . NET-based application development, MSN and the Office applications themselves to “define the digital decade”. If successful, it will completely reshape how we think about the Web and inevitably Macromedia’s current domination will be affected in the process.
Longhorn will change how we think about documents and the Web.
Longhorn won’t just affect Macromedia incidentally. Microsoft has never been exactly keen on rival standards and it has Flash SWF directly in its sights. One of the key platforms announced for Longhorn is “Avalon”, Windows’ new vector-based 3D graphics system that will be directly addressable with XAML ( eXtensible Application Mark-up Language). And to produce the XAML, Microsoft is developing a graphics and animation toolset cheekily codenamed “Sparkle”. Throw in Microsoft’s existing web- optimised multimedia formats, . NET-based server side integration and a new live communications and collaboration subsystem codenamed “Indigo” and it is clear that Microsoft’s own form of Rich Internet Applications are on the way. Unsurprisingly those who have seen Sparkle in action are already calling it Microsoft’s “Flash killer”.
No wonder Macromedia was looking for friends. And Adobe isn’t going to survive unscathed either. A few days after the announcement of the Adobe-Macromedia merger, Microsoft revealed some new Longhorn details. Lo and behold the next Windows is going to offer a new XML-based fixed document format codenamed “Metro” designed for sharing, archiving and collaboration. Sounds familiar? Not only that, the Metro documents will be produced by “printing” them through a universal driver accessible to all applications, the XML-based results will be directly viewable in Internet Explorer, and printer manufacturers will be able to add dedicated Metro features to provide faster and higher quality output. And yes it’s already being called Microsoft’s “Acrobat killer”.
All this puts the merger in a very different light. Of course Longhorn isn’t a reality yet and no-one knows the final form it will take, when it will arrive or whether it will work in practice. Even so, when I said earlier that no-one could possibly challenge PDF and SWF with new industry standards, I was deliberately ignoring the only possible exception. During their merger announcement conference call the Adobe and Macromedia representatives did exactly the same, studiously avoiding all mention of Microsoft and the major changes ahead. However I think it’s safe to assume that Longhorn is figuring high in their internal deliberations and that it is the real key to understanding just what’s going on. I certainly hope they are giving it more thought than KIllustrator!
At the same time I don’t think that the takeover should be seen as purely defensive or, worse, as simply re-arranging the deckchairs while waiting for the Longhorn technology wave to hit. To begin with, Longhorn is largely built on open XML so there should be huge opportunities here as well as threats – especially outside Microsoft’s core office market. And in the high-end creative arena Adobe doesn’t just get to combine the CS, Video and MX applications to produce a formidable array of authoring applications stretching across the entire creative spectrum. It also gets to combine PDF and SWF technologies (along with XML, Flash Video FLV, SVG and so on) to produce a single ubiquitous creative format which itself promises to redraw the creative computer landscape.
In fact most designers and users will be surprised to hear that Acrobat already supports Flash. They won’t have come across the capability because there are few dedicated authoring capabilities apart from Acrobat Professional’s awkward Movie tool, and because playback relies on the end user having the necessary Flash player installed. However, with a truly integrated PDF/SWF authoring and delivery solution, Adobe can not only embed Flash content but add Macromedia’s advanced ActionScript programmability, streaming multimedia, real-time communication and server-side data handling to PDF’s existing strengths. In this vision the static electronic document is about to come fully alive - and about time too.
In the future Acrobat and Flash will become truly integrated.
Of course merging such different technologies isn’t simple and won’t happen overnight. In fact to pull it off at all, Adobe will need a major injection of Macromedia-style dynamism. However, compared to the complete rewriting of all the rulebooks involved in Longhorn, it should be relatively straightforward. And the prospect it opens up is truly exciting with the new PDF standard becoming the universal creative output and exchange format for all Adobe applications. That’s not just the current CS apps - Acrobat, Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign - but the multimedia applications - Premiere Pro, After Effects and Encore DVD - and the Macromedia acquisitions - Flash, Fireworks and Director (an embedded browser could even bring Dreamweaver into the mix).
In effect the resulting Adobe Reader would enable the display and playback of all Adobe creative content much as Longhorn’s Internet Explorer will do for Microsoft’s office content. And, just as it does for Flash already, such rich content would automatically drive the necessary player take-up to ensure that the Adobe Reader becomes the one player that everyone installs. Crucially that really will be everyone – not just Microsoft Windows users but those on other supported platforms such as Mac, Linux, Solaris and so on. And not just computer users either. Both Adobe and Macromedia have forged important links with handset manufacturers based on their existing SVG-t and Flash Lite solutions and this is clearly an area that is set to boom. Equally, it’s not difficult to imagine a PDF/SWF-based replacement to the antiquated DVD format and a whole new breed of Adobe-enabled set top boxes.
In this vision, by bringing together applications, formats and players, the merger of Adobe and Macromedia produces an entirely new platform. Crucially it’s an integrated platform that’s entirely focused on authoring and delivering high quality creative content. Just as importantly, it’s a platform that is both compatible with, larger than, and independent of, Microsoft. Maybe in an ideal world such a move wouldn’t have been necessary, but you have to wonder how Adobe and Macromedia would have fared alone when Longhorn hits? Worse, think what the likely implications would have been for the creative community if Microsoft had decided to buy up Macromedia in a Quark-style spoiler operation. Compared to that dire prospect, the Adobe takeover isn’t just shock news; it’s good news.
There are exciting and unpredictable times ahead and this merger should provide the necessary foundations to ensure that a professional creative industry built on Adobe software and technology not only survives, but thrives.
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