Apple Can't Kill Adobe

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"Octavius: Stir not until the signal.
Brutus: Words before blows: is it so, countrymen?
Octavius: Not that we love words better, as you do.
Brutus: Good words are better than bad strokes, Octavius."
-- From "Julius Caesar" by William Shakespeare, 1599

Much has been made of the way Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and Adobe Systems (Nasdaq: ADBE  ) are doing battle over the rights to put Adobe-backed software on Apple's mobile gadgets. The highly public fight is an endless source of entertainment for disinterested bystanders and Apple fans alike, but those on Adobe's side of the story would prefer good words over bad strokes.

On my signal, unleash hell!
Adobe just introduced Creative Suite 5 (CS5) -- a comprehensive package of software to perform creative work in the digital age. CS5 components like Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator have long set the standard for what a graphics editor, document design program, and other vital tools should look like, and this refresh has been hailed as possibly the most ambitious round of revisions in Adobe's history.

But Apple sprung a trap on Adobe by making a prime selling point of the Adobe Flash Professional instantly obsolete. Packager for iPhone can compile a Flash application into code that an Apple iPod, iPad, or iPhone understands, working around the famous prohibition of Flash software on these devices. When Palm (Nasdaq: PALM) worked around a restriction in the Apple iTunes music library to publish iTunes music to the Pre smartphone, Apple updated its software to render Palm's solution useless. This time, the black-turtleneck gang simply changed its App Store policies to deny publishing any workaround solutions built in nonapproved programming languages, such as Packager for iPhone.

Developers either love this restriction or hate it, largely depending on what programming tools they like to use. Adobe spokespeople have explained calmly that one feature does not a Creative Suite make, and it's no big deal. Lee Brimelow, a "Platform Evangelist" at Adobe, on the other hand, forgot to take his chill pill. He outlined Apple's policy change as "a frightening move" that hurts end-users and developers, and noted that Adobe would never retaliate by removing Apple support from its Creative Suite products.

Friends in high places
Spirits run high on both sides of this conflict, and some observers trace it all back to Adobe treating Apple as a second-class citizen 16 years ago to focus its efforts on Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Windows support instead. Grudges are nothing new in Cupertino, of course.

None of this should matter much to Apple. The company has the tech clout to make others work around iPhone idiosyncrasies such as the lack of Flash support. (Go to YouTube with an Apple Safari browser and you get a recently implemented HTML5 version of the video streams instead of good old Flash.) Yep, YouTube serves up Apple-compatible HTML5 videos if you want 'em. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) clearly isn't above helping an old pal out, especially when millions of tragically hip Apple users can be counted on to click on heaps of YouTube's embedded ads -- if the site works for them.

For Adobe, the situation is more dire. When Apple takes a stiff-lipped stand like this, the company has the power to influence public perceptions, how consumers use technology, what content formats are viable, and which ones aren't. Ultimately, a thousand cuts can start killing the value of Adobe's prized Flash platform.

Quo vadis, Adobe?
Adobe is too big and diversified to die an untimely death from this uncouth treatment, of course. (Photoshop and friends do have rivals, but are still the gold standard for creative software in many fields.) However, Adobe paid a good $3.4 billion for Flash inventor Macromedia, and that buyout added little more than Flash and the DreamWeaver Web development package. Declare Flash worthless and that deal would resonate with echoes of how eBay never made anything out of the Skype chat-and-phone acquisition. Billion-dollar goodwill writedowns never look good.

So it's in Adobe's best interests to talk peace with Apple, but posturing on both sides makes that look impossible. Flash has become a cross-platform software platform that runs your code almost anywhere. Apple is just one player in that game with a small slice of the overall market share pie, but it's also a trendsetter with a hot finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment.

Even Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) won't persuade Jobs to run Java applications on the iPhone, and Adobe's leverage is far smaller than Larry Ellison's. In the long run, Adobe will have to bite the writedown bullet and live or die by CS5 and its descendants alone.

You win, Apple. But you still can't be Brutus to Adobe's Caesar.

Note: An original version of this article said Packager for iPhone was in Adobe’s Catalyst program, but it’s actually a tool in Adobe’s Flash Professional program.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. He's lobbying for every month to be a National Poetry Month. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers choice. Apple, Adobe Systems, and eBay are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. The Fool owns shares of Microsoft. 

Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (10) | Recommend This Article (12)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 2:57 PM, neal157 wrote:

    Apple has not banned Flash from their OSX computers, only the iPhone OS. They claim it will degrade performance. I would be interested in an unbiased expert opinion on this. Headlines about the Big Fight don't really tell us anything.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 3:05 PM, neal157 wrote:

    Apple has not banned Flash from OSX, only the iPhone/iPod/iPad platform. Maybe it really does pose problems for the mobile OS. I would be interested in an expert opinion on this.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 3:31 PM, 13astion wrote:

    Okay, Apple doesn't want to kill Adobe -- it wants to kill Flash. Which wasn't even originally an Adobe product.

    Of course Apple still wants the core of the Creative Suite: Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, InDesign, After Effects, etc.

    They just would like to see Flash dead, as, to address neal157's question, Flash is a horrible piece of software on Mac OS X because it is not optimized. Why it is not optimized could have more to do with either Apple or Adobe -- I'm not going to attempt to settle that debate, but it is undebatable that Flash is NOT optimzed for Mac OS X and causes slowdowns, memory faults, and even crashes. I think a lot of people who poo-poo the performance complaints of Flash on Mac OS X are in fact Windows users, who use Flash just fine on their computers and can't imagine what all the fuss is from their other-platform brethren. But Windows folks don't see the problem, because Flash WAS optimized for Windows.

    The iPhone OS is essentially a Mac OS X "Lite", and runs on hardware far inferior to the average iMac or MacBook.

    Since Adobe has failed to optimize Flash for ANY mobile platform yet, there is no reason to believe that simply installing today's Flash would work on the iPhone OS, somehow, magically, better than it works on Mac OS X.

    I'm sure Apple has tested it in their labs. I trust that it failed, otherwise it would be supported.

    "Expert opinion"? I don't know, but hopefully at least a logical one.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 3:33 PM, TMFZahrim wrote:

    Well, there's this:

    "At least from a CPU utilization perspective, Flash isn't BAD and HTML5 isn't GOOD. It all depends upon the platform and implementation."

    In other words, let Adobe in to use hardware acceleration and deep OS X hooks, and Flash could be fast on Macs. But until that happens, Jobs gets to call it slow.


  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 3:47 PM, ryanalexanderson wrote:

    If Adobe Acrobat Reader is any indication of the intrusiveness and ridiculous bug-infestation of their software...yes, please keep it far away from my iPhone!

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 4:04 PM, marv08 wrote:

    Sorry Anders, but that comment is not even close to reality. Quicktime, NicePlayer, Movist, VLC, several others and even Microsoft's SilverLight players work just fine on OS X without hardware acceleration and "deep hooks". You really do not need hardware acceleration to play a video on any current PC. None of these players causes absurd CPU utilization, most of them rarely crash and all of them are faster when it comes to fixing security holes. Adobe is exactly what Jobs called them: lazy. They have ignored user complaints for ages and now they pretend to be surprised.

    Also. If you really have to quote Jan Ozer's "test", then please read it (especially table 1): Flash uses 202% more CPU cycles than Safari with HTML5 video! No other player in existence is that bad.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 4:22 PM, Tim1T wrote:

    From a business standpoint this issue has nothing to do with Adobe being the good guys or Apple being mean. It's about Apple being true to its core business approach.

    Apple would be foolish if they allowed any and all apps to make it to their store. Walmart doesn't allow any and all types of movies or music to be sold at their stores. Nordstrom doesn't sell Old Navy level clothes. They are after a quality customer experience.

    Apple's business model is built on their being able to deliver a certain well-defined user experience. From the beginning they avoided the Microsoft one-size-fits-all approach to applications. And with the iPhone, they took that intimate approach to user interactions to a new level.

    That melding of hardware and software is Apple's secret sauce. And that experience is lost when developers work on a cross-platform application that ignores the vocabulary of the Apple approach and the uniqueness of Apple's hardware.

    That's why Apple wants developers to use it's tools and to optimize the app for the iPhone instead of the Android buyer. Any developer will tell you that if you try to work with all the phone manufacturers, you have to dumb down your product in certain ways because each maker has a different set of functions that it supports.

    And as far as Adobe being blindsided, I seriously doubt that. Adobe and Apple have been haggling over this issue for years. And anyone who follows Apple knows how critical Apple and its users get when someone creates an app that doesn't deliver the Apple experience.

    Every company has to be true to their DNA to succeed. And that's all Apple is doing.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2010, at 4:41 PM, theBrokenApple wrote:


    "But Apple sprung a trap on Adobe by making a prime selling point of the Adobe Flash Catalyst tool instantly obsolete. Catalyst CS5 can compile a Flash application into code that an Apple iPod, iPad, or iPhone understands, working around the famous prohibition of Flash software on these devices."

    Incorrect, Flash Catalyst is a Design tool for Flex and has no relation to the iPhone issue. It's FLASH that had the compiler to publish iPhone Apps. Two different programs. And in other words it wouldn't make Flash obsolete either, just the iPhone & iPad Obsolete as developers switch to Android.

    Personally I used to like Apple products and had few issues against them but this time they've gone too far and Developers really need to stick together and show Apple that we can't be stopped.

    - Mike


  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2010, at 10:43 AM, mom2close wrote:

    Apple and Adobe have a long history of agreeing and disagreeing to standards and software implementation. Adobe PostScript vs Apple TrueType is just an example. Even though they are competitors in Video and Composite Software both companies have strong relationships. I must rebuttal the statement "Spirits run high on both sides of this conflict, and some observers trace it all back to Adobe treating Apple as a second-class citizen 16 years ago to focus its efforts on Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) Windows support instead." Apple was at near death during that time period. Adobe continued to support a losing battle in Mac vs. PC. Adobe does not support second class citizens. if Adobe did they would have supported Linux, Unix, DOS and every other small second class operating system. Adobe even supported Apple made Mac OS9 when Windows 95, 98, NT, XP and Me were competitors. What I do see is Apple becoming more monopolistic in nature. Moves such as removing Google from the iPhone 4.0 KEYBOARD software are indications. Not supporting the JAVA environment correctly after bragging OSX was an open platform fully compatible with Coca, Carbon, Unix, Java and Classic layers. Remember iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad use an OSX foundation. There is no need to place restrictions on the usage of JAVA and Flash. I understand some applications many crash or be buggy. I feel the user who purchased these items have the right of choice. If Microsoft is forced to include an alternative browser so should Apple. Apple has done this with Quicktime vs Windows Media Player, Real Player and others. My advice - if the end user wants a closed system that is limited to The Gods at Cupertino "Apple's Next Movie ;)" then buy an Apple Product. Apple can and will change the terms and software support as long as the government doesn't view them as a monopoly. Other things Apple has done such as not including a competitors web browser, discontinuing VST support in Logic Pro, stopping ZFS File system from becoming an Apple used technology, discontinuing Windows support for numerous applications Apple has purchased, limiting Palms support in iTunes, Stealing the look and feel of third party programs, shutting down any program sold at the app store using the name "iPAD", yada, yada. Apple needs to be put in it's place. In time The Gods at Cupertino will come to reason.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2010, at 12:00 PM, HDTVBG wrote:

    Apple and Adobe are equally evil. For instance look at the crippleware trick Adobe is playing with the graphics accelerators for Premiere Pro CS5. Cheap game cards like the NVidia Geoforce285 have many more GPU cores than the expensive Quattro cards Adobe recommends. Adobe enforces the recommendation by coding-in a 3 layer limit for Geoforce cards while allowing unlimited layers if a Quattro is detected.

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