Will Adobe wreck EchoSign?

Remember Buzzword? If Adobe's previous SaaS acquisitions are anything to go by, today's news is less cause for celebration than commiseration with EchoSign's users and fans over the next few years.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Congratulations to the team at EchoSign on the company's acquisition by Adobe (see also Techmeme coverage). I'm sorry to say, though, that if Adobe's previous SaaS acquisitions are anything to go by, today's news is likely to be less of a cause for celebration than commiseration with EchoSign's users and fans over the next few years.

Largely unnoticed except by those in the know, EchoSign has been a fixture of the SaaS landscape for many years. The secret of its success has been its use of the cloud to make something effortless that has always been a pain in the physical world — the signing and exchange of business contracts.

Since those contracts are increasingly created and delivered as PDF documents, the synergy with Adobe's Acrobat product line and more especially with its Acrobat.com online applications portal should be self-evident. But recall what Adobe has done with its earlier acquisitions and immediately the outlook seems less sanguine.

Remember Buzzword? Adobe acquired the WYSIWYG online word processor in October 2007 and subsequently made it the cornerstone of its online collaboration portal. But although Buzzword still exists as part of Acrobat.com, it doesn't feature on the latest version of the portal, which was introduced last November.

A discussion thread from around that time on Adobe's Buzzword online user forum sums up the feelings of once-passionate users about what happened to Buzzword in Adobe's care. This comment headed Leaving Buzzword / Acrobat.com for Evernote is in so many ways a perfect summary of why big, established conventional software companies rarely succeed with innovative SaaS products:

"Adobe is a large, established and profitable company with lots of resources. Evernote is a small startup. Adobe probably has littlle priority placed on making their online apps great, Evernote will live or die by the greatness of their one app. Buzzword has seen no significant updates in the last year. Evernote has seen 4-5. When it comes to advancing and enhancing their product, I'm placing my bet on Evernote over Buzzword."

As for Adobe's hopes for Acrobat.com to challenge the likes of Microsoft and Google as a platform for business collaboration, another contributor to the thread has a scathing but well-founded put-down: "Unfortunately, Acrobat.com is the bimbo of cloud office suites. It looks hot, but has no depth." To think I headlined my November 2007 posting about its ambitions, "Web collaboration: Cisco and Adobe duke it out." What a pathetic sideshow that fight turned out to be. (Here's my verdict on Cisco's efforts: WebEx augurs ill for Cisco's cloud ambitions).

And of course the reason Acrobat.com is starved of investment and drive to fulfil those ambitions is the simple fear of cannibalisation of Adobe's established businesses. A few months back I wanted to create a PDF form that could be completed and sent in by email, but that's not something I can do on the Acrobat.com website because it would impact sales of Adobe's flagship LifeCycle document management server products.

It's just as I wrote back in October 2007: "Eventually, Adobe will find itself conflicted by difficult choices as the functionality of the two product sets begins to converge: should it accelerate development of the online products in the expectation of future revenues or hold them back in order to protect existing licence sales?" In the event, it didn't even get that far. Will EchoSign get dragged down by similar conflicts of interest? It seems to me that outcome is almost a dead-cert prediction.

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