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

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.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

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?

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