Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) just made the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPad better. Oh, and Adobe Systems (Nasdaq: ADBE ) found another accidental enemy.
By throwing its considerable heft behind the emerging HTML5 video playback standard, Mr. Softy validates Apple's stiff-necked vision of the future of online video. The upcoming Internet Explorer 9 browser, which will eventually become the default browser on the majority of Windows-based computers, supports HTML5 video extensions, as well as the exact same H.264 file format that threatens to displace Flash as the video playback standard.
This is a problem for Adobe, as the rise of HTML5 video content and the soon-to-be ubiquity of browsers supporting that standard pose a major threat to its Flash-rich media platform. Apple's Safari browser already supports the new combination of standards, as does the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Chrome browser. Mozilla's Firefox and the independent Opera browser stand apart in their refusals to license H.264 video decoding standards, clinging instead to the different standards.
That division of the HTML5 standard into camps divided by licensing technicalities may have slowed the adoption of the standard -- because nobody can say exactly what the standard is today. H.264 seems to be winning out thanks to wide browser support alongside adoption by leading video libraries like Google's YouTube, but the standard's licensing terms are set to change over time, which means that not every entity aboard the H.264 train today will stay there forever. That is one of Adobe's saving graces now, along with Flash pulling in help from video-crunching hardware to make its software run faster on some platforms.
Why the good times won't last
But both of Adobe's advantages may be ephemeral and short-lived. For one, Google acquired On2 Technologies in a piddling $106 million deal that puts a high-quality video format right at Google's fingertips -- and Big G intends to make On2's technology available royalty-free. If (when?) video sites and browser developers everywhere switch over to that standard instead of fighting over video quality versus license freedoms, that fragmented market goes bye-bye. Google's own YouTube will likely be first in line to make the switch, and that's a market-defining monster all its own.
For another, there's little to stop browser programmers from baking hardware acceleration into their own software to match Adobe's second advantage. Widely accepted standards like the OpenGL and OpenCL graphics frameworks expose your hardware's acceleration features to any programmer. It doesn't matter whether your graphics chip comes from Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) , NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA ) , or Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , or whether your system is a desktop, laptop, or even a smartphone: There will be many ways to hook into specialized hardware to speed up your software. Adobe is doing it for Flash, and others could easily follow suit.
What it all boils down to
So Microsoft just lent credence to the iPad browsing experience and put fresh pressure on Adobe. Flash still has a few unique selling points, but they are evaporating fast. Given these challenges to an important product line that was the keystone of a $3.4 billion deal, Adobe looks richly priced at 16 times forward earnings. Photoshop and the rest of the Creative Suite are doing well for Adobe, but stacked up against Google and its comparable forward valuation, I'd bet on Big G's growth prospects over Adobe's.
Apple can't kill Adobe on its own, no matter how hard Steve Jobs wishes he could. But with powerful allies like Microsoft and Google -- whether accidental or intentional, the dagger in Adobe's back hurts just the same -- Apple is helping to make the future of Flash look rather grim from where I sit. Eventually, somebody will look to figure out how to play games in standard HTML code, too, and Adobe's prized possession will become nothing but a rather large footnote in the annals of Internet history.
Do you agree? Disagree vehemently, perhaps? Either way, vent your spleen in the comments below.