Commentary: Can Apple, Adobe take it to the bridge?

Matthew Rothenberg takes another bash at the curious relationship between Adobe Systems and Mac OS X.

Oops, I did it again. I fear I'm starting to sound like a kid who's eaten too much chocolate birthday cake before the arrival of the piñata, but I just can't resist taking another bash at the curious relationship between Adobe Systems and Mac OS X.

In a couple of recent columns, I asked a lot of questions about Adobe's plans for Apple Computer's new OS. What features will carbonized versions of Adobe's market-leading graphics apps bring to the table? Specifically, will the OS' Quartz imaging layer (itself based on the public spec of Adobe's Portable Document Format) lend special advantages to Adobe software that relies on PDF?

I noted the fact--first confirmed by MacCentral--that Adobe has decided to skip this month's Macworld Expo/New York, and I mused a bit about the company's current strategic direction, which is based on feature parity between the Mac and Windows versions of its pro graphics apps. Would the potential advantages of Mac OS X be enough for Adobe to tilt this balance in Apple's direction?

While I haven't heard from Adobe directly, I have gotten a lot of useful insights from readers who work with the company and its products.

Among their explanations for Adobe's hands-off attitude, my correspondents cited Adobe's pique over Apple's decision to release Final Cut Pro, a video-editing package that competes directly with Adobe Premiere, and its impatience with the memory-gobbling overhead of Mac OS X's Aqua interface. When it comes to the Expo no-show, readers noted the astronomical costs of exhibiting in New York (Adobe's stated reason for the move). More-Machiavellian readers also speculated that the company might have been less-than-eager to spend the week fending off pointed Mac OS X questions from show-goers.

Above all, I gleaned a passel of answers thanks to the good offices of PDF maven Leonard Rosenthol, an Adobe veteran who is currently director of software development with Appligent Inc; in fact, Rosenthol will be hosting an Expo session titled Mac OS X and PDF: The Real Story.

In what I presume constitutes a preview of that event, Rosenthol helped disabuse me of the notion that the PDF Apple implemented in Quartz equals Adobe's version. Unlike the Display PostScript built into Mac OS X's predecessor, NeXTStep, there is no Adobe code in Mac OS; as I pointed out in an earlier installment, Apple based its implementation on Adobe's public spec. "It's kind of like saying that the TextEdit application in Mac OS X is 'built on Microsoft technology' because its native format is RTF," Rosenthol wrote.

(It's a good thing for Apple, too, according to Rosenthol: "The Adobe implementation is very long in the tooth, not thread-safe and leaks huge amounts of memory.")

Expecting Quartz to facilitate Adobe's vision of PDF as a universal format for the creation and dissemination of text and content "assumes a complete implementation of the PDF specification, including not just the graphics content aspects of PDF (which is all Quartz supports), but also all the document features - bookmarks, hyperlinks, annotations, security, signatures, structure/tagging, et al."

Not only are Quartz's PDF and Adobe's PDF two distinct implementations, Rosenthol writes, but Adobe is loath to surrender the autonomy of its applications to any OS maker: "Those are parts of the Mac OS (and Windows) that Adobe doesn't use. They have their own graphics library, text and font rendering engine and PDF library, and they don't want/need those features in the OS.

"Adobe gains two things from Quartz's use of PDF," he writes. "First and foremost, it means that PDF becomes an even more entrenched standard in the industry for 'final documents'. This can only help Adobe in the long term. Second, it means that Adobe has the potential to sell lots of Acrobat packages to all the users who are misled by Apple marketing about just what 'PDF support in Mac OS X' really means."

While I'll be the first to acknowledge the corporate showmanship that has sustained Apple as well as Adobe all these years, the sort of misdirection that Rosenthol describes strikes me as risky business for both companies.

Graphics professionals who've supported Apple and Adobe since the '80s are looking for specific examples of how adopting this new Mac platform will benefit their work flows and final output. It's high time for some transparency in the discourse as well as the document format.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.