Bruce Chizen's legacy

This week, Adobe announced the resignation of CEO Bruce Chizen, with company President and Chief Operating Officer Shantanu Narayen taking over Chizen’s role, effective December 1. This news comes shortly after the 25th anniversary of the company’s founding, and a few months after release of the full-scale application avalanche known as Creative Suite 3.

Having known Bruce for nearly two decades, I’m sure that he felt that this was the right time to make his exit: Adobe is financially strong and has a deep portfolio of products that span print, Web, video and professional and consumer imaging markets. What happened in the seven years since he took the reins from Adobe co-founder John Warnock?

The Macromedia acquisition

Looking at recent comments and ones from the time of the deal, I seem to be in the minority regarding Adobe’s $3.4 billion purchase of Macromedia in 2005. I think that it was a smart deal. It certainly was the biggest event of Chizen’s tenure.

While many people don’t seem to remember this, Macromedia was floundering; the company had two very good products in Flash and Dreamweaver and a bunch of alternatively undercooked and overdone technologies that wafted in and out of favor inside Macromedia headquarters. I realize that I’m being a bit simplistic, but Macromedia’s actions early in this decade seemed more like confused wanderings in the produce aisle than the results of an honest-to-goodness strategic vision. Had Macromedia been better able to execute, it wouldn’t have been a position where a company like Adobe would have snapped it up. I’ve seen lots of comments about the death of Freehand and the deep freeze of Director, but those events were well on their ultimate path during Macromedia’s watch, not Adobe’s. (Don't even get me started on Fontographer, which finally found a home in FontLab at the time of the deal.)

And, to anyone who argues that Adobe screwed up Macromedia, would you have preferred that Microsoft been the buyer? I think not. Adobe was the best caretaker for the confused, eight-legged company that Macromedia had become, and it was smart enough to know that Flash and Dreamweaver were better than anything it had in-house.

InDesign

Let’s talk about real competition for a minute.

Long ago, a single software product, Aldus PageMaker, changed the way many of us published magazines, books and printed material. Adobe ultimately bought Aldus (and sent the Illustrator competitor, Freehand, to Macromedia, by the way—didn’t that turn out well?), but by the time that happened, a little company from Denver called Quark had taken over the print-publishing world. Adobe spent millions of dollars trying to rejigger PageMaker into a contender, but failed miserably. This despite the fact that, in all the years I’ve been covering the market, I have never—never—heard so many regular complaints about a company with a mainstream product as I did about Quark. Honestly, in this world, not even Microsoft comes close in terms of user dissatisfaction. People wanted Adobe to succeed; hell, they begged Adobe to save them every time they shipped a check off to Colorado.

Under Chizen’s watch, Adobe went back to the basics, scrapped PageMaker, and built a 21st-century publishing product called InDesign. The first version was well-near unusable in a production environment. The second version was marginally better. Finally, with the Creative Suite 2 release, InDesign was what Version 1.0 wanted to be: a robust, industrial-strength competitor to QuarkXPress. And guess what? In the process, InDesign worked its way into Quark shops, and somehow Quark became more customer-focused. That’s competition as it should be. Unfortunately, it rarely works like that, so enjoy it while we have it.

Creative Suite

If you’re into products, Christmas came early this year, when Adobe shipped Creative Suite 3, releasing updates to nearly a million products. That’s certainly what it seemed like, at least, with the complex matrices of collections and editions and sidegrades and staged releases that accompanied the CS3 bandwagon.

While I think Adobe could certainly have done a better marketing job with CS3, it has been relentless in providing regular updates to its core suite of products. We can—and do—moan about upgrade pricing, but when you look at the key products in the suite—Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver—it’s hard to argue against their strength.

I know that there are plenty of people who think that the suite is bloatware, but, having used Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign regularly for the past six months, those apps feel much more right for the things I do than some of the Office applications. Besides, let’s get real: if you want alternatives to something like Photoshop, they’re certainly coming fast and furious these days.

We champion Apple for releasing regular versions of OS X, but somehow Adobe’s release of three Creative Suite versions in four years is viewed as money-grubbing. Sorry, that’s capitalism at work, and you don’t have to play; that’s why there are plenty of people who work productively on Power Mac G4s and Mac OS X 10.2, to say nothing of the folks who have stuck with Power Mac G3s and OS 9.2.2.

And, ummm… video

Over the past few years, Mac users have had more than a few complaints about Adobe’s perceived indifference for the platform—including the lack of OS X versions of Photoshop and Illustrator back in 2001—and capped perhaps by the Sopranos-style icing of Adobe Premiere for the Mac in 2003. Forget for a minute that Apple owned the high-, middle, and low-end of the Mac video space, and that it was actively and aggressively competing against Adobe. Premiere wasn’t really a great product to begin with, on Mac or Windows, which is why Apple was able to seize the higher ground. Why should we be offended because there was one less bad product available for the Mac?

No, the real reason was that the death of Premiere somehow represented the commencement of the painful, protracted departure of Adobe from the Mac platform. However, aside from the painful, protracted platform misalignment of Photoshop Elements—king of the hill and a version ahead on Windows, a lackluster competitor of sorts to iPhoto on the Mac—there’s really little for us to be worried about when talking about Adobe’s long-term Mac commitment.

Of course, Adobe has since placated us by bringing Premiere Pro back to the Mac as part of CS3, but I’m going to tell you that I don’t think Adobe should be playing with video (or sound, for that matter). I think this is the one place where the size of the company seems to dictate that it have a video offering, but it really feels like an afterthought to me. Maybe this is competition at work—witness the uproar over iMovie ’08—and I’m fine with it. Just don’t expect me to like it.

Given that Adobe’s revenues will have nearly tripled over the past seven years, and that it proved its love to the Mac community by at least releasing the same stuff—whether you think that stuff is perfect or not—for our side of the world as it has on Windows, I’d say that Chizen did a damn good job for his investors and for us. It’s Narayen's turn at bat, and he’s got some daunting tasks ahead of him—not only must he keep the financial house in order, but he must move decisively toward Adobe’s publicly stated goal of turning its core applications into online-based tools.

But first, Shantanu, do us all a favor: set FrameMaker free. Please. Make it open source or something, but let someone else deal with it. I’m sure that it would certainly cut down on the e-mail, and let you get on with the more important stuff.

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