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Adobe’s bloodless coup

While we were busy working, Adobe took over the Internet. More specifically, Adobe’s software took over just about every aspect of web design and development. Is this really a good thing for web designers and developers? Or for web users? Or for anyone, other than Adobe? My answer is a resolute, unwavering “No”.

Now let me explain why.

A little history

Graphics software and the Web

I designed my first website in 1996. And although Adobe Photoshop had already declared itself the “Industry Standard”, there was still software from worthy competitors available for me to use in my work. In the mid to late 1990s, Corel’s Photo-Paint had already become a reasonable alternative to Photoshop. Jasc’s Paint Shop Pro was growing in popularity, particularly among Internet shareware purchasers. There was also Macromedia’s Fireworks and Ulead’s PhotoImpact, both of which became particularly popular among web designers. I evaluated the competition, and chose PhotoImpact as my first web graphics editor, appreciating both the features and the price.

Coding software and the Web

I used Microsoft Notepad to code that first site in 1996. Fortunately, the mid-to-late 1990s brought new and better Web coding tools to the marketplace. Developer Nick Bradbury created HomeSite, a text based code editor, which was something like using Notepad on steroids. Meanwhile, Microsoft, Macromedia, and Adobe developed WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors, which enabled creating a website without writing code.

Video and the Web

When video first appeared on the Internet, it was in a variety of formats, including Microsoft’s AVI, and the Moving Picture Experts Group’s MPG. Flash was still being used for its intended purpose (creating vector animation).

The Adobe factor

Adobe angst

So, why do I feel Adobe is so bad for our business? It’s because Adobe learned a great deal from its competitors, then swallowed most of them up in takeovers, and left the rest struggling to stay in business.

Adobe and web design software

Most web designers don’t realize this, but a great deal of what makes Photoshop a powerful tool for web design came from innovations from Adobe’s competitors. One of the most important web design features in Photoshop is its Web Export, which displays your original image versus versions compressed in the GIF and/or JPG and/or PNG formats. You can compare formats, test various compression settings, and find the perfect format and compression settings needed for your image. However, Adobe didn’t invent this type of web export software. It was first seen in Ulead PhotoImpact version 3.01 in 1996. At the time, you couldn’t even save a JPG in Photoshop, doing so required a special plugin.

Another web feature that’s now a standard in Photoshop is the ability to create HTML image slices. A single image can be cut into multiple images, enabling each “slice” to have its own hyperlink. The process also allows a Website to appear to load faster, since multiple images are downloading simultaniously, occupying the viewer’s attention. As with Web Export, this feature did not originate with Adobe, it was first seen in Macromedia’s Fireworks.

Just how feature limited was Photoshop in 1996? In summary, let me put it this way: it had one (and only one) level of undo/redo.

Adobe and web coding software

As for Nick Bradbury’s HomeSite, it eventually became the code editor inside Macromedia’s Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver set itself apart from competitors such as Microsoft’s Front Page (which wrote awful code) and Adobe’s GoLive (which had an awful workflow). Dreamweaver was the first major product to truly produce WYSIWYG HTML, and later WYSIWYG Dynamic HTML (HTML plus CSS and JavaScript). Further, Dreamweaver did so in a way that worked for just about any browser, on just about any operating system.

Adobe and Flash Video

The horror that has become Flash Video is somewhat self explanatory. Compare Flash to just about any other format, and Flash will usually produce the worst quality results. The MP4 format produces much better results at similar bandwidth. Although YouTube is starting the process of converting to MP4, just about every other video sharing site in existence is using Flash. Thanks, Adobe.

From innovator to troublemaker

And thus, the problem: Adobe now owns Fireworks and Dreamweaver and Flash, and competing products such as Ulead PhotoImpact are being phased out of existence. In this new “Adobe owns it all” scenario, where will future innovation come from? What designer with the limited resources of Nick Bradbury will be able to compete with Adobe? What small company like Ulead will create the next web compression innovation? And what will Adobe’s motive be to control its already out-of-control prices when there are no remaining competitors?

Adobe’s success may be good for Adobe, but in the end, with innovation crushed and prices high and going higher, Adobe’s market dominance will have a negative impact on the rest of us.

About the author:
Anthony Celeste is a technical writer, multimedia developer, and Windows programmer. Anthony wrote about color theory and Web design in “Corel DRAW 10: The Official Guide”, and covered animation and special effects in “Ulead PhotoImpact 7: The Official Guide”.



9 comments
Anthony Celeste
Anthony Celeste

I want to take a moment to briefly respond to John Dowdell: "If you’d like to make a new pitch, I’m open to being persuaded. How shall we continue this conversation…?" Okay, here's my new pitch: Adobe continues to take over software companies, but promises to always keep all of the software it has purchased active and upgraded. Nothing ever again hits the abandonware bin. In all seriousness, I'm not really looking to debate the issue, since i have my opinion, you have your opinion, and neither of us are going to change each other's minds. But I appreciate your taking the time to comment here, regardless of whether we agree or disagree on the issues. Thanks, Anthony

FerretallicA
FerretallicA

You seem to completely ignore the two other juggernauts in the same business space: Microsoft and the free open source software movement. Both of them are behind two alternatives which are growing at a faster rate than Photoshop, are completely free, and are still growing in the spirit of innovation rather than pure imitation: GIMP and Paint.NET. There is a vector-based graphics program called InkScape which is far superior to Illustrator in so many ways it warrants an article in itself. Microsoft's Silverlight has already surpassed Flash in power, performance and functionality in nearly all areas except animation and learning curve, however I anticipate that will also continue to change in the near future. Don't forget Java also offers a powerful and feature-rich alternative to Flash minus the native vector graphic performance. As far as price goes, if anything Adobe's market dominance has helped push a large number of initiatives to work on a 'free-to-user' business model to get their foot in the market which I think is a positive thing. Overall I'd liken your overly dramatic post to the kind of thing I hear from heaps of people about the music industry. "Boo hoo, big record labels kill innovation, no-one writes good music any more, blah blah blah". Innovation is still out there. You just have to look beyond the end of your nose to find it. It's only natural for leaders to emerge over time in pretty much any environment. Their existence or wide-spread nature doesn't inherently make them omnipotent or negate the merits of those 'beneath' them. Further more, corporate juggernauts may have financial sustainability and a marketing edge over the likes of start-up businesses and open source initiatives but the products of commerce will always be playing catch-up to the products of passion simply because the bigger a company or software product grows, the more consumers and shareholders they are responsible to, which is an innovation stifler FOR THEMSELVES, NOT for others who answer only to their passion for what they are doing or desire to make a difference.

suegame
suegame

Coda is an awesome html/php/css editor

John Dowdell
John Dowdell

Hi Anthony, I was alarmed by the title, but I'm not sure you've convinced me..... ;-) (I come from Macromedia, and have done tech support for Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash from the start of each. And I'm very bullish on what Adobe is contributing to the web ecology today.) Some tidbits: Dreamweaver 1.0 was oriented specifically to the then-beginning DHTML (dhtmlzone.com is still in Internet Archive). The HomeSite text editor came with the Allaire acquisition years later, and I don't know of any code-crossbreeding between them. Flash Video is as high-quality as it gets, bringing advancements to H.264 deployment and use. You can certainly auto-compress for poor results though. Generally, innovation comes at the edges, at new and under-served fields. We wouldn't expect to see many new entries in basic image-processing these days... still possible, but it would have to offer very plausible new conveniences. Multi-screen display is a hot topic of research right now, as are intelligent graphics, content-aware graphics, metadata-driven graphics, the whole field of video, and so on. It's possible for new entrants to make significant contributions here, but Adobe is investing greatly in core imaging research across all these fields, to enable new successes for content creators. If you'd like to make a new pitch, I'm open to being persuaded. How shall we continue this conversation...? tx, jd/adobe

Volker
Volker

You are so right again. Since Adobe acquired Macromedia there inst anything new at all on Dreamweaver for years, each release that comes is just the same. Photoimpact is always great, it was great in 1996 and still is today. I still use it. Corel acquired Photoimpact by the way so I don't see it dying anytime soon. I think we are going to see an alternative pretty soon, specially because Adobe isn't putting anything new and astonishing on their new releases, the innovation is going to move other paths. This happens not only with web design but almost all industries. How many companies did Google buy in the past? The only thing they invented was PageRank, their email filter is Postini, Analytics is Urchin, Google Earth is....we could go on and on.

Joe
Joe

sounds like a conspiracy story to me (next one just after the recent WebsiteSpark vs Lamp). Saying that something wasn't good in 90's and suddenly became better thanks to copying others isn't a good argument without facts. The two mentioned features are just a ripple in the sea of changes that Photoshop went thru over last 10 years. There's many similar tools, but Adobe products are most complete and integrated which makes them attractive to bigger customers who don't mind to spend some $$ on tooling. Ah and terms "prices going higher" and "market dominance" are contradictory - don't put them in one sentence. If they were true, someone would find a business plan to provide a cheaper alternative.

David Paulsson
David Paulsson

Photoshop is no "must have" although it's the de facto industry standard. You can just as easily use Gimp (for example) to create good looking graphics. And Flash is more and more loosing its importance since (most) developers are very eager to make accessible and user friendly websites. Basic animations can just as easy, and with better results, be done with jQuery (or similar) and for videos you can use a non flash player. This will also create better SEO'd websites. And Dreamweaver? I don't know anyone using that with programs such as Coda (and others) doing the job much better. Most problematic for me is Illustrator. Now that's the program with no real alternative (ok, sure, there is Corel Draw - but I don't like it). But, don't get me wrong. I'm using Adobe's products myself. :) /David http://twitter.com/davidpaulsson

Stefan Seiz
Stefan Seiz

And on top of that, while FireWorks was a really nice, lean and fast piece of software with Macromedia, Adobe managed to bloat it past recognition in no time. Same goes for FreeHand which is first bloated and then died.

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