The Adobe – Apple War by Jonathan W. Seybold
There's been a big furor the last two weeks about Apple's insistence that cross-platform development tools, and in particular Adobe's Flash, cannot be used to develop iPhone applications. Everyone has jumped on the bandwagon opining about why Apple would do something so developer-unfriendly, and maybe even, customer-unfriendly.
There are many who feel that this Adobe/Apple feud is based on some deep-rooted enmity between Adobe and Apple. I turned to my brother to ask the question: Why is Steve Jobs doing this? Jonathan was the consultant and evangelist who brought Steve Jobs, John Warnock and Paul Brainerd together to create the desktop publishing revolution and to provide the Macintosh with the killer app it needed.
Jon read various other accounts of the Apple/Adobe relationship and decided he could contribute the most by providing this earlier history that no one else has covered as well as his own take on what Apple's move means for innovation on mobile devices.
PART 1: SOME HISTORY
Jonathan Seybold: PARC
Like so much about modern-day computing, it all starts with Xerox PARC. Somebody should start assembling a history of PARC.
But, that is a much bigger topic for a later time.
We are going to follow just one of the threads that spun out of PARC:
1979: The Famous Visit to PARC by Steve Jobs and Some of the Lisa Development Team
Apple was already working on Lisa development. Xerox knew this. In fact, that was one of the primary reasons why Xerox invested in Apple. Part of the deal was that Steve and his team would get a full run-down on everything from the object-oriented programming languages to the Alto workstation, the Bravo WYSIWYG word processing software and the Alto GUI.
But, one of the essential functions of the office system for “knowledge workers” that Xerox had set out to build had to be the ability to send the pages created on the Alto workstations to a variety of laser printers. Xerox had discovered that this meant that it needed another piece of the puzzle: a standard resolution-independent way of describing the rich pages of text and graphics.
Xerox had been using a data format called “Press” for this purpose since the mid-70’s. But it found that this was not flexible enough.
John Warnock had previously developed what amounted to programming languages that described graphic pages first for Evans and Southerland, and later for PARC. By 1979, he and Chuck Geschke were developing a much more ambitious “page description language” (InterPress) at PARC.
Dec 1982 Through 1983
John and Chuck left PARC and started Adobe Systems with the express purpose of writing a second-generation PDL that they will call “PostScript.”
Very early on John contacted me.
Although I do not recall ever meeting John at PARC, he had clearly followed our stuff. He knew that I thought that there was a desperate need for a single, standard means of describing text and graphic pages to be output to printers and typesetting machines.
At that point, every output device operated somewhat differently and could perform different functions. Every manufacturer used different type fonts. The commands to drive each machine were different. It was a complete mess.
At Rocappi in the 1960’s we had addressed this problem by visualizing what you can think of as a universal virtual typesetting machine. Our “target” machine could do everything we could imagine such a machine might ever do. Any actual machine was a sub-set of this.
15 years later, we were entering a world in which everyone would have to deal with complex graphics and images as well as type. The world needed a universal means of describing any page, no matter how complex.
This is precisely what PostScript promised to do.
I immediately began to publicize the concept and give lots of attention to Adobe—and, later to the several other candidates who joined the contest to become the de-facto standard page description language.
But, what happened in 1984, guaranteed that Adobe would win:
January 1984: Apple Introduces the Mac
Big splash. A few days before the introduction, I had taken my pre-production Mac to Washington DC to give several clients a hands-on preview of the future of desktop computing in the days following the announcement. No-one noticed the distinctive square carry bag I carried with me on the airplane. On the return trip after the announcement, I was stopped over and over by people who realized what I must be carrying. I had never before seen anything like this.
Nevertheless, the original 128K Mac was not something that most people wanted to run out to buy.
At the Seybold Seminars conference in Santa Monica that March, Apple had several Macs on display in the hands-on area where we invited vendors to show off new products.
We had two ladies from Apple on the program to talk about the Mac. They arrived looking very bedraggled. They had been touring the country for over a month to a terrible reception. No one “got it.”
But, all of a sudden in Santa Monica, they had walked into an environment in which almost everyone “got it”. It was an electric moment.
From that moment, publishing was suddenly the golden market for Apple.
Couple Months Later
Not sure of the exact date, but Steve called me and said that he had something exciting to show me.
I flew up to Cupertino and walked into a little room to see Steve looking like the cat that had just gotten the canary. He said that he wanted to bring someone else into the meeting, and in walked John Warnock. Apple had made a deal with Adobe to support PostScript. Apple would have the LaserWriter. Adobe had done a deal with Linotype. Adobe would make PostSript versions of Linotype fonts (the best in the business). Linotype would sell PostScript versions of their high quality laser typesetters—which now became “imagesetters” rather than “typesetters”.
I told Steve that he had just turned publishing upside down.
When Paul Brainerd had left Atex in the fall of 1983, I had offered him a job. He said that he was flattered, but that he had something else he wanted to do. That something else was PageMaker—the original desktop publishing program.
When the PageMaker team started out in early 1984, they had targeted the program for the PC.
After I had been briefed on the Apple/Adobe/Linotype deal I called Paul and told him that I could not tell him why, but he really needed to talk with John Scull (evangelist for publishing at Apple). I then called John and said that he really needed to talk with Paul. Aldus quickly change its focus to writing PageMaker for the Mac.
PageMaker provided the missing link that made the Apple/Adobe thing really work. Paul suggested that the “thing” be called “desktop publishing”. John Scull and I both agreed. So, that’s what we all called it.
It was announced to the world in January 1985.
1985: Steve Jobs Kicked Out of Apple. Founds NeXT.
He would not return for to Apple for 11 years.
NeXT took the Adobe relationship one step further. Steve realized that PostScript was much more powerful than the QuickDraw language that Apple used to draw graphics on the Macintosh screen. You could not express on the Mac screen everything you could print on a PostScript printer. This was crazy.
So, Steve worked closely with Adobe to develop Display PostScript: basically using a simplified version of PostScript as the graphic language for the NeXT workstation screen.
Through all of this Steve and John Warnock had a close working relationship. They were the only two senior execs I came in contact with in the computer industry who had a real aesthetic sense and a deep appreciation for things that look right and work right.
1989: “Font Wars”
Adobe’s business was licensing PostScript, supplying PostScript RIP processors to drive laser printers and imagesetters, and selling Type 1 PostScript fonts.
Manufacturers of typesetting machines had always used proprietary font technology and font libraries as a way of differentiating their machines, creating a barrier to competition, and as a very important profit center. Adobe was doing the same thing.
But, the world was changing. Other companies were offering less expensive PostScript “clone” processors, and the font business was changing before everyone’s eyes. If we were going to have a standard PDL and basically interchangeable output devices, we were eventually going to have an open standard for type fonts as well.
Adobe kept saying “no.”
With Steve Jobs long gone, Apple was chafing at paying Adobe’s high prices for fonts. It decided that it would develop its own competing font technology for the Mac and make this open and available to anyone who chose to make and sell fonts coded in Apple TrueType format.
Microsoft had also started to realize that it had to include some sort of native font technology and font library in Windows. Talks with Adobe had bombed. The two companies just did not hit it off.
Finding a solution was high enough priority that Bill assigned the task to Nathan Mhyrvold. Nathan turned to me for advice. His objective was to figure out who to partner with, do the deal, and have Bill announce it at the Seybold San Francisco conference that coming September.
Nathan turned out to be an amazingly “quick study”. When he set out to learn about something he immersed himself in it. Within a couple of months we could talk about type with some real sophistication.
He talked with every player in the business. I enlisted an expert panel to provide blind critiques of the quality of the type designs from the major contenders. Apple was NOT on his list.
He made his decision, and was well along on final negotiations.
Then, at the last minute, Apple proposed that Microsoft adopt its TrueType format and font library. By itself, Apple would have a hard time establishing a standard. But, together Apple and MS could establish an alternative standard. Common fonts and font technology on Macs and PCs. Adobe frozen out. That made sense to Microsoft.
Bill announced the deal at Seybold Seminars San Francisco. Adobe was completely blind-sided. This was devastating. Not only did the Apple/Microsoft deal threaten Adobe’s business model, it meant that typography—something very precious to John Warnock—would be in the hands of people he considered to be philistines.
1990’s: Adobe as Tool Provider
PostScript was becoming generic. The font business would never be the same. What was Adobe to do?
The answer was that it would turn itself into a tools company. It would provide the tools that creative professionals would use to create content.
It started with PhotoShop (acquired in 1989), and gradually built this up into what became its Creative Suite.
The New Realities
The other key change in the 90’s was that Adobe—which owed its initial success to that 1984 deal with Steve—had pretty much written Apple off.
It wasn’t just the TrueType saga. It was that virtually everyone in the computer industry regarded Apple as increasingly irrelevant. Macintosh market share kept sliding. Its attempts to move into new markets (e.g. Newton) hadn’t worked. Its efforts to write a next-generation operating system were perceived as more and more problematic.
Microsoft was King. It was the big bully that everyone in the industry was afraid of. The best recipe for success was to find a niche that Microsoft was unlikely to covet for itself, and become dominant in that niche. That is what Adobe did.
And, everyone was focused on writing software for the PC, not for the Mac. Adobe did not abandon its Mac software development (way too many creative types used Macs.) But, it did devote a larger portion of its resources to the PC implementations than it had in the past.
1996: Steve Returns. 2000/2001: John Steps Aside.
Steve returned to Apple in 1996. Apple acquired NeXT, got a modern OS and what amounts to display PostScript.
John Warnock retired as Adobe CEO in 2000, and as CTO in 2001. He and Chuck are still co-chairman of the Board. But, he is no longer involved in operating the company in any way.
I would be surprised if he and Steve have not had at least one painful conversation about what is now happening. However, their personal ties that once bound Apple and Adobe and then NeXT and Adobe are clearly no longer sufficient.
As Jean-Louis Gassée points out, they are both now in positions where their companys’ self-interests no longer align.
And, I have no reason to believe that Steve has the same kind of connection with the current Adobe management that he used to have with John.
2005: Adobe Acquires Macromind
In 2005, it acquired Macromedia and MM’s web-content tools (including Flash). This cemented Adobe’s position as THE supplier of both web and print content creation tools.
Adobe’s message: we provide a common set of inter-operable tools for creating compelling content for any purpose (print, video, on-line)—and for any platform.
The logical Adobe pitch for app developers would clearly be “create once, play on any platform”.
So what happened with the Flash player after Adobe acquired Macromind?
I was no longer in a position to have any first hand knowledge of this, but I believe what I have been told by people who do:
There wasn’t a conscious decision to flip off the Mac and Mac users, but the PC version of the Flash player had to be the top priority. The PC was the platform that mattered for establishing web standards. So, the PC version got the resources. The Mac version did not. The Mac version simply wasn’t that much of a priority.
Any wonder why Flash Player on the Mac sucks?
PART 2: SOME PERSONAL OPINIONS
Lessons from the PC Industry
Jean-Louis Gassée argues that cross platform development tools for hand held devices would result in everyone writing apps for the lowest common denominator. This may not be completely true. (You might, for example, add a couple of neat features that worked only on the iPhone version.) But, I am afraid that there is an awful lot of truth in it.
We all know the history of the PC industry by heart. We all know that once people reverse-engineered the IBM BIOS, PCs rapidly became commodities. I have never run the numbers, but suspect that the total net profits for the sum of all PC manufacturers for through most of the 1980s was close to zero. The losses by the losers probably went a long way towards offsetting the profits made by the winners.
Most of the profits went to the one company that had a near monopoly position—and a huge moat around its products: Microsoft.
I believe that this came at considerable cost to innovation. By the end of the decade, the people at Intel were complaining to me bitterly about Microsoft: what the PC could do was completely dependent upon what Microsoft’s software allowed it to do. It was useless for them to design new capabilities into a processor unless Microsoft was going to support those capabilities. And, Microsoft moved veeeerrrrryyyy slowly.
It was equally useless for a PC manufacturer to try add significant new capabilities—hence the commodity products.
As a consequence, the PC has evolved remarkably slowly over the past 30 years. Very frustrating.
Applying These Lessons to the Current Situation
I don’t want the same sort of thing to happen to such a new, dynamic and uncharted field as interactive hand-held devices.
As JLG points out, if most app development migrated to a common cross-platform development environment, most apps would be written around the cross-platform sub-set of functionality.
Once this happens, the hardware platforms would quickly devolve to the least expensive hardware that supported this common cross-platform sub-set of functionality. The market would increasingly belong to a bunch of different devices all of which do essentially the same thing in the same fashion. That is: basically different implementations of the same device.
Adobe would make tons of money because it would be the only provider of development tools. The hardware guys would be back in the commodity business. Innovation would come slowly.
You can see why Adobe loves this scenario, and Apple hates it.
What Happens If We Don’t Have Cross-Platform Development Tools for Apps?
IMHO we are pretty quickly going to end up with just two or three viable platforms. The network effect is just too great for there to be any more than this.
So, we will not be talking about having to develop apps for five different platforms. Just two or three.
Why are two or three better than multiple devices all of which offer essentially the same functionality? Because the two or three that survive would have to innovate to compete.
I would like to see these few platforms competing—and innovating—as hard as possible.
I would like to see Apple push as far and fast as it can.
And, I would like to see the Android world do the same—although I do think that the Android world is going to need some “reference” devices so that programmers have some sort of (hopefully moving) target to program for. (The cross-platform sub-set problem again.)
Will there be a third platform? If so, who might it be?
We can all guess. But, we can’t be certain. We will have to see.
PART 3: THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION
My instinctive emotional reaction is that I don't like what Apple is doing.
But, the more I think about it, the more Apple's new position on cross-platform development tools makes logical business sense.
I think that this is a situation where Apple's interests and Adobe's interests are in direct conflict.
And, the more I think about it, the more "good" I see from a competitive environment that allows Apple, Android, RIM, and others to go off in different directions and innovate in different kinds of ways. I would like these devices to become more different and more diverse rather than having them converge around a least common denominator set of specs this early in the game.
Flash is tougher. Long term having a video player and other Flash functions as part of the browser rather than a plug-in Just Makes Sense. HTML5 is the future of embedded video. And, Adobe HAS screwed up Flash Player for the Mac.
Right now, I really don't think I want a Flash plug-in on my phone.
But, Flash is going to be around for a long time. Older browsers take a long time to die out. And, the Flash development eco system is pretty evolved.
It would be awfully nice for everyone if Apple and Adobe could sit down and agree on terms under which Apple would allow a new, lean, clean, robust and secure Flash Player into the iPhone world. Then, it would be up to Adobe to actually build such a thing.
Based on the acrimony on both sides, that does not look likely.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS FROM JONATHAN
Couple of Further Thoughts about Adobe and Apple:
Thinking about Adobe. The trouble with being too dominant in your market is that you tend to become far more concerned with protecting your position than on moving things forward. We have all seen this time and time again.
The old cow that successful innovators “eat their young” was, I think, an unfortunate metaphor. What we are really talking about is eating your mature cash cows. That is pretty hard for most people to come to grips with. This is clearly true of Adobe. They should be at the forefront of doing HTML5 tools. They are not. How stupid is that? If they don't someone else is going to.
On the Apple side, I find the problem with Scratch that has just come up to be really troubling. This really re-enforces the perception of Apple-as-control-freak—which will help drive more developers to Android. Not smart.
BTW: Has anyone else had the misfortune to notice what Apple has just added to Safari on the Mac? Safari crashed on me yesterday for no apparent reason. The screen message that followed informed me that Safari had just crashed—most likely because of Flash.
I observed years ago that Microsoft always had to have an enemy to keep it focused and motivated. In the periods between enemies, the company tended to drift.
I don't think that Apple needs this. Just working for Steve keeps you focused and motivated!
And, you don't want to have too many enemies. Gives them lots of mutual incentive to get together to gang up on you.