Adobe's creative legacy & the proprietary aspirations of Apple & Google

Adobe's creative legacy & the proprietary aspirations of Apple & Google

Summary: I've spent a lot of time working with Adobe's Creative Suite 4 recently, and it's really made me think about web standards, the future of web vector graphics and video.For all the hoopla around Apple as innovators right now, their foundations were arguably laid by Adobe over the last twenty five years.


I've spent a lot of time working with Adobe's Creative Suite 4 recently, and it's really made me think about web standards, the future of web vector graphics and video.

For all the hoopla around Apple as innovators right now, their foundations were arguably laid by Adobe over the last twenty five years. After massively disrupting the graphic design and typesetting industry with postscript, digital fonts, Photoshop and more, Adobe turned to multimedia in the last century. The mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between Apple and Adobe back then was a given, and Adobe products didn't make it to the Microsoft PC platform until much later.

You can't say enough about the giant strides Adobe have made for the graphic arts, video production, sound and animation. Their giant rival in the '90's was Macromedia, who rode the CD ROM boom through the rise of the web and on, before being bought by Adobe in late 2005. Macromedia had purchased five person FutureSplash in 1996 and built out their giant Flash franchise based on it after their Authorware and Director multimedia suites, which compiled essentially pre-web technology multimedia files, proved too bulky for the dial up net.

Today Adobe have extended this franchise greatly with the Rich Internet Application (RIA) Flex, in part to solve the huge issues of browser compatibility that dog web development. Adobe are now at a crossroads, having absorbed their desktop application competitors but finding themselves in a Web 2.0 world where a bit of lightweight  scripting is considered cerebral coding by some.

Adobe applications are industrial strength, with a legacy of previous iterations trailing back in version history, and typically have a steep learning curve. their sheer power can be a barrier to entry, and understanding how their various 'creative suite' applications work together can be very tough to understand unless you're putting in hundreds of hours of time with them. These are artisan tools used by highly creative people to craft television programming and ads, websites and mobile applications.

Part of Apple's brand aura is rooted in these creative people's offline toolkits and desirable jobs, which were made possible by the Mac OS. At the less glamorous end of the creative spectrum, today there are tens of thousands of SCORM elearning modules created with Flash and predecessors, a cornerstone of enterprise knowledge sharing. (Macromedia was born out of the merger of elearning application makers Authorware and MacroMind- Paracomp, the creators of the Director interactive multimedia authoring tool in 1992).

Web Standards

Despite the frenetic pace of the hi tech and business worlds, Web standards move at a glacial pace, and they are the underpinnings of the future of the web. The Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) are starting to release early versions of HTML5, and this will ultimately enable a sea change every bit as great as the Web 2.0 advances enabled by the Mozilla DOM, Ajax, HTML4 and XML.

From the WHATWG wiki:

..... HTML5 will reach a W3C recommendation in the year 2022 or later. This will be approximately 18-20 years of development, since beginning in mid-2004. That's actually not that crazy, though. Work on HTML4 started in the mid 90s, and HTML4 still, more than ten years later, hasn't reached the level that we want to reach with HTML5. There is no real test suite, there are many parts of the spec that are lacking real implementations, there are big parts that aren't interoperable, and the spec has hundreds if not thousands of known errors that haven't been fixed. When HTML4 came out, REC meant something much less exciting than it does now. For a spec to become a REC today, it requires two 100% complete and fully interoperable implementations, which is proven by each successfully passing literally thousands of test cases (20,000 tests for the whole spec would probably be a conservative estimate). When you consider how long it takes to write that many test cases and how long it takes to implement each feature, you’ll begin to understand why the time frame seems so long.

No Flash on iPhones or IPads

What's changed in the electronic creative world Adobe built, lead and dominated for the last two decades is essentially mobile and the web. Flash is a proprietary standard essentially built around ECMA script and postscript/vector graphics. The coming tablet and mobile computing revolution will be underpinned by open standards around html5 and the <canvas> tag is  a new HTML element which can be used to draw graphics using scripting (usually JavaScript, which is a dialect of EMCA script). It can be used to draw graphs, make photo compositions or animations.

The WHATWG HTML5 editors are Ian Hickson of Google and David Hyatt of Apple.

The Web's recent flowering around 2.0 browser based apps has been enabled by a spirit of royalty-free web standards, and while writing code for HTML5 parsing browsers will enable a new generation of open innovation, there are worrying signs of closed shop thinking emerging.

It seems inevitable that the H.264 video codec will replace Adobe's .FLV video format - the question is whether that standard will be more open or a closed shop controlled by Apple and Google, rather like the railway tracks being open standard but anything running on them being proprietary. Overtime it also seems likely that the <canvas> tag will eventually replace both Flash and Microsoft's equivalent, Silverlight, although they are sure to always be a generation ahead of html5 in the near term.

This excellent post by Mozilla's Director of Developer Relations Chris Blizzard outlines what happened ten years ago when Unisys decided to start to enforce their GIF image related patents.

...GIF was already widely used on the web as a fundamental web technology. Much like the codecs we’re talking about today it wasn’t in any particular spec but thanks to network effects it was in use basically everywhere. Unisys was asking some web site owners $5,000-$7,500 to able to use GIFs on their sites. Note that these patents expired about five years ago, so this isn’t an issue today, but it’s still instructive. It’s scary to think of a world where you would have to fork up $5000 just to be able to use images on a web site. Think about all of the opportunity, the weblogs, the search engines (even Google!) and all the other the simple ideas that became major services that would never have been started because of a huge tax being put on being able to use a fundamental web technology. It makes the web as a democratic technology distinctly un-democratic. We’re looking at the same situation with H.264, except at a far larger scale.

Is Apple, riding on a wave of creative glamor originally created by Adobe and Macromedia, about to be the Unisys of the HTML 5 world? Their tight control and censorship of iphone application content suggests a level of proprietary thinking which could make their coming consumer offerings highly restrictive to develop for. Will Google tie up video through whatever device you're viewing it on with proprietary standards?

In a world still entranced by the AOL-like Facebook, are we about to see history repeat itself with huge barriers to entry for web development?

Topics: Enterprise Software, Apple, Browser, Google


Oliver Marks & Associates provides seasoned, technology agnostic independent consulting guidance to companies on effective Digital Enterprise Transformation business strategy, tactics, infrastructure & technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models and management.

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  • Codecs are not containers!

    Regarding "It seems inevitable that the H.264 video codec will replace
    Adobe?s .FLV video format" DUH!
    H.264 is a codec, and MPEG4, QuickTime and FLV are containers that
    can use a variety of codecs. So, FLV can contain an H.264
    compressed video track. Please learn the difference.
    Regarding "For all the hoopla around Apple as innovators right now,
    their foundations were arguably laid by Adobe over the last twenty
    five years."
    More misinformation. Apple laid the foundations for digital and web
    video with Quicktime in 1991. Video did not come to Flash until many
    years later.
    • It's all true

      It's not "misinformation" to say that Adobe laid the foundations for Apple's success. It's just that the foundation was laid long before web video, and in fact before the web itself. Adobe was founded by the creators of PostScript, which sparked the computer graphics revolution in the dead-tree world. Apple glommed onto that with the first reasonably-priced laser printer; Apple became the ubiquitous presence it is in graphics arts shops precisely because of that. Without that fairly protected niche market, Apple might not have survived The Pepsi Salesman, The Frenchman, et. al.
      Robert Hahn
      • Whaaaa?

        Not sure it had a lot to do with a laser printer. It was more about
        publishing. Apple created a WYSIWYG environment where 72 ppi display
        was equivalent to 72 pts (font sizing - 72 points = 1 inch) in the print
        world making it easy to do typesetting and layout on the computer rather
        than with these massive Linotype machines that used molten lead. It was
        a revolution. Postscript did play a huge roll in this by creating a system
        where shapes (fonts) where described very precisely by mathematics as
        opposed to images or impressions again using the point scale.
      • Desperate rationalization by your logic transistors laid video gnd work-NT

  • proprietary

    you mean you are afraid that someday, magically apple will
    have control over h.264 and turn it into an proprietary codec
    (and then monetize it!) but you are perfectly fine with adobe
    controlling web video now with their proprietary flash
    • h.264 is proprietary, but not Apple's

      Don't fool yourself. H.264 IS proprietary. But
      it isn't Apple's property (Apple owns only one
      patent in the pool). H.264 is based on a pool
      of 47 pages of patents licensed through a
      MPEGLA. Apple and Google have each had to buy
      or trade for hugely expensive licenses to use
      the standard.

      Essential reading: the linked piece by
      Christopher Blizzard if you want to see what's
      at stake with H.264 and HTML 5.
      • For free internet video, H.264 free to use until 2016

        AVC Patent Portfolio License will continue not to charge royalties for
        Internet Video that is free to end users until 2016

        HTML5, MPEG4 and H.264 are open standards, developed and agreed
        upon by a consortium or group. FLV and SWF is owned and controlled by
        ONE company. Who would you rather deal with?

        Every different video standard: avi, mov, real, and now Flash has
        dominated at one time or another on the web.
        Things change fast, just a Flash in the pan...
        • Only applies to free content and only covers streaming

          This royalty-free period (through 2016) only
          applies to streaming H.264. And only content
          that is free to end-users.

          So any service providing paid video-on-demand
          would still be subject to royalties. And any
          browser or OS wishing to provided support for
          HTML 5 video that uses the H.264 codec would
          have to license H.264.
      • RE: Adobe's creative legacy & the proprietary aspirations of Apple & Google


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  • RE: Adobe's creative legacy & the proprietary aspirations of Apple & Google

    This post was prompted in part by my attempting to convert an animated Flash file from SWF (vector)format to FLV (Flash video container), which proved to be time consuming.

    You're quite right, Apple's QuickTime team drove digital video development through the 90's, when Adobe, Apple & Macromedia were the creative tools dream team.

    I wound up having to use Adobe After Effects to convert SWF to FLV, having attempted to use Quicktime pro which doesn't recognize FLV. There are two things going on here: The synergy between Apple and Adobe seems to have collapsed, and Adobe's Flash and video handling is now overly complex and somewhat impenetrable. (Their help files are very spotty IMO).

    Additionally, there are suspicions that Flash is a leading cause of Mac OS crashes (see this link emailed to me about my post by 'andom').

    Sorenson's Squeeze codec will encode both Quicktime and video to Flash, but my separate point was that the H.264 codec was poised to be the Quicktime of the next decade, and I was questioning how open Apple was going to be with development for that.

    Simplicity, stability and ubiquity are desirable H.266 traits for developers...
  • Thanks for the blog, Oliver -

    thought-proving reading ! My own impression is that [b]Google[/b] is presently doing a better job of handling relations with the open source community, but it is important that attempts to lock users in to exclusive proprietary solutions be fought, no matter from where they come....

    • Yes, but not to the point of all things open source. nt.

  • Adobe and Google Are Partners!

    You place Apple and Google in the same space when Just the
    other day Apple CEO Steve Jobs was bad mouthing Google.
    Also, you neglect to mention that Google is Partnered with
    Adobe in The Open Screen Project to help evangelize the
    Adobe Flash Platform.
  • RE: Adobe's creative legacy & the proprietary aspirations of Apple & Google

    Some interesting points, but the statement that "Adobe applications are industrial strength" is quite laughable.

    Adobe applications maybe feature-rich, intuitive, and useful, but they are not industrial strength. I will agree that Adobe has a fantastic creative legacy, but that legacy is no longer being built upon.

    Flash is the largest attack vector for malware on the internet.

    As long as Adobe neglects security and reliability (how many of your system/browser crashes are caused by Flash? For most users, it's a high percentage). Several other Adobe products frequently appear on Secunia's vulnerability advisories.

    This lack of concern about quality and security makes hard for anyone to take Adobe seriously.
    • Strawman Much?

      "Some interesting points, but the statement that "Adobe applications are industrial strength" is quite laughable."

      After reading that, I'm thinking "hey, IronDrew is going to give examples of applications that are *really* competing with Adobe apps, and possibly how. Instead, we get "Flash is the largest attack vector for malware on the internet."

      So for those of us keeping score, your argument that Adobe apps aren't favored by the industries they target (multimedia design) is the fact that Flash Player is the most common attack vector? Either you're woefully uninformed or just plain trolling. Oh well, I'll bite...

      How many websites have *you* visited recently that didn't involve Flash to some degree? I can only think of a handful, personally. Given the wide install base of Flash Player, along with the fact that it's cross platform, it stands to reason that it'll end up being the most targeted attack vector. Even so, I don't think that Flash *Player* was the author was referring to.

      The author is referring to Adobe's authoring and design apps: Acrobat, After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Indesign, and Premiere/Encore. They've got a list of other apps that's a mile long (

      It is THESE apps that have become staples in graphic design degree programs in college catalogs, and you'll find on virtually every desktop in every marketing and design firm you'll step foot in. Sure you'll find QuarkXpress, Motion, and Final Cut on many of them as well (either in concert with or as a replacement for the comparable Adobe app). Heck, even Microsoft has their own Expression Studio.

      "Adobe applications maybe feature-rich, intuitive, and useful, but they are not industrial strength. I will agree that Adobe has a fantastic creative legacy, but that legacy is no longer being built upon."

      Can you elaborate on this one, please? I'll certainly agree that the Adobe apps have offered fewer and fewer compelling reasons to upgrade in recent years (as well as their hard disk and RAM requirements seeming to follow Moore's Law). That still doesn't explain your point on why they're not "Industrial Strength". What constitutes "Industrial Strength" then? The allusion that *ANY* Adobe app is intuitive leads me to believe that you've never actually done anything in one. You'll be hard pressed to find someone who will describe an Adobe production app as intuitive. In my experience (and yes, I've been using them for years), one doesn't master an Adobe app - they just stop banging their head against the wall trying to figure out how to do what they want to do. They are an industry standard though, and that's because with few exceptions (Final Cut and Quark being the two most notable ones), when it comes to raw power and feature sets, there isn't really an equal.

      • Re: Strawman Much?


        I think that you are confusing use with security. "For those of you keeping score" you completely missed my point. I would agree that Adobe products are industry-leading, but they are not industrial strength. Perhaps the phrase "industrial strength" means something different to you and I.

        Adobe products are some of the industry leaders in most of their product categories. We agree on that.

        Adobe products are quite useful, have better than average UI and some (such as Flash) are incredibly widely used. I think that we agree on that. That is industry leading.

        Industry leading does not mean "industrial strength". Industrial strength has the implication of being strong, reliable, and well made.

        This is where Flash fails. Just because everyone uses it, doesn't mean it is good (or good enough). I doubt that anyone wants or needs the results of a Google search on "Flash exploits", or the list of vulnerabilities that Secunia has reported.

        As I said originally there are good points in the original post, but Adobe products are not industrial strength.

        Popularity does not equal "strength".
        • Industrial strength...

          IMO - Industrial strength toxic waste!

  • Are you standing on your head?

    It sounds like you've got everything upside down and

    Yes, Adobe has given us a great legacy. Yes, Apple did
    depend on their market during the desktop publishing
    years--but that wasn't created by Adobe. Adobe wasn't the
    only player, and if they hadn't held that market, one of
    their competitors would have.

    It's the technology prom, and you're only as good as your
    last dance. Adobe's steps are getting old.
  • Adobe doesn't like Apple, and vice versa

    With Flash being the biggest target vector for
    malware (as someone previously pointed out),
    I've stopped building Flash presentations,
    except for small slideshows/web ads. (I
    recommend the SlideShowPro plugin for Flash,
    just in case you were interested.)

    Like you said, it takes hundreds of hours of
    work with the Adobe products to really create
    synergy between them. While Photoshop and
    InDesign are world-class programs, Illustrator
    is still bothersome when it comes to handling
    text. If you're an information graphics creator
    for a newspaper (as I am), then this becomes a
    major issue. All newspaper graphic artists
    lament the day Adobe bought Macromedia, as it
    was the death of Freehand.

    And just as I was beginning to get a handle on
    Actionscript 2 in Flash, they released
    Actionscript 3. It was at that point that I
    began to give up on Flash. Another reason was
    that the newspaper I work for didn't like Flash
    presentations, because they didn't account for
    page hits like other technologies did.

    One can create marvelous animations in After
    Effects, but the learning curve is still pretty
    steep. And the file sizes don't translate well
    to Web apps, even with the explosion of
    broadband. If someone has to wait more than 10
    seconds, they're going elsewhere (rule from
    "Web Sites That Suck").

    I bought the Master Collection CS3 suite a few
    years ago. They came out with CS4; I looked it
    over carefully, and saw no real reason to
    upgrade. I'll do the same when they release CS5
    later this year, but I don't know that it will
    be worth upgrading unless Adobe and Apple can
    solve their differences.

    When I can design applications for the
    iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch in an Adobe application,
    then I'd agree that Adobe is getting it's act
    together. But for now, I see them resting on
    their laurels. In the tech world, that's the
    surefire way to become irrelevant. Just ask the
    makers of WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, QuattroPro,
    dBase or any of the hundreds of software
    companies that had the top product in their
    That is, if you can find any of them.
    • Imagine Apple without photoshop

      The idea of artists using a Mac would have died long ago and Apple may not have made it through the pre-iPod era. You do remember that time? You know, back when Apple wasn't "innovative" they were just expensive and different.