Analysis: Considering Adobe's future

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When I got up Monday morning, turned on my computer, and saw the headline in my inbox "Adobe buys Macromedia," I just thought, "Isn't April Fools behind us?" But a quick check of the New York Times , Adobe and Macromedia Web sites confirmed the $3.4 billion deal. If all goes according to plan, come this fall, Macromedia will be no more and Adobe will own not only its own stable of graphic design applications, but also a barrel full of complementary and competitive programs. Adobe Flash, anyone?

What this acquisition means for the future of the two companies is, of course, up in the air. The official line from Adobe is suitably vague and filled with the usual corporate, feel-good, mind tranquilizing verbiage: "greater synergy," "better workflow," "broader solution," and, as Yul Brynner as the King of Siam would say, "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera."

From a strategic, corporate, mile-high perspective, the acquisition isn't about capturing the competition or crushing competing programs; it's a move by Adobe to gain ground in the growing market of internet applications and the delivery of information over the Web. Adobe is a formidable presence in the graphic arts world—there's probably not a single design department in a Fortune 500 company that doesn't use it's products. And the defacto standard for electronic documents, Portable Document Format, is as ubiquitous as 1040 forms (which, of course, you can download in PDF format from the IRS).

But aside from Adobe's video products, most of their technologies are stuck in "old media" and the static world of print. They've captured that market; it's time to move on.

Macromedia, on the other hand, has put most of their resources into dynamic media: Web design applications (Dreamweaver/Fireworks), online Web conferencing and presentations (Breeze), server-based Web solutions (Cold Fusion, JRun, Flex), and, the jewel of the crown, Flash.

Without Flash, Adobe probably wouldn't be interested in purchasing Macromedia. But a technology that started out as nothing more than an animation program has morphed into a powerful real-time information delivery tool that can access data across the Web, read from and update databases, act as the front end for complex Web applications, and even run as a desktop program free from the constraints of a Web browser. Most of Macromedia's development and marketing energy over the past few years has been directed toward promoting Flash (in suitable industry jargon) as a "Rich Internet Application," spawning related (and less well-known) technologies like Flex -- an uber-geek programming environment for Flash -- and Central -- a Flash-based desktop tool that has similarities to OS X 10.4's Dashboard.

If Adobe is the darling of art departments, Macromedia is the up-and-coming star of the IT set. This is the kind of "synergy" Adobe is alluding to -- left and right sides of the brain taking over the universe (or at least trying to hold its own against Microsoft.)

But, this high-level corporate strategy stuff isn't much consolation to us users of Photoshop, Fireworks, Director, and the other applications of the Adobe/Macromedia pantheon -- the rabble who use these programs day to day to get our work done. Newsgroups are abuzz with predictions about the two companies and their products. Users on both sides of the fence are rightfully concerned, and wonder what will become of the products they most cherish -- especially products like Freehand and Illustrator, or Dreamweaver and GoLive, which compete head to head. It seems unlikely that Adobe would keep two illustration and two web design programs alive for long.

Adobe may attempt to integrate features from competing programs and I've already seen some proposed new names -- GoDream, PhotoWorks, or, my favorite name for a hybrid web/print design super-program: Sortaworks. Alternatively, Adobe may just scrap programs that compete with theirs -- bye-bye, Freehand.

Despite all of the hand wringing, doom-saying and prognostications, it's obviously too early to predict the future. Anyone who tells you what the future holds for these two companies and their products doesn't really know what he's talking about. So, with that said, here's what the future holds for these two companies and their products:

• All of Macromedia's surviving products will have a facelift. Adobe's polished user interface will become the standard, and Flash will finally be freed from its legal restraints.

• Freehand is discontinued. Illustrator is already top-dog, and integrating the code from two different programs is just too much work.

• Dreamweaver reigns supreme, GoLive is no more. Dreamweaver has dominant market share and (rightly or wrongly) is seen as the more "professional" of the two programs. However, seamlessly integrating Dreamweaver into the Adobe Creative Suite will be tricky.

• Fireworks will slowly disappear. Photoshop is Adobe's star, and the vector-orientation of Fireworks just doesn't mesh with Photoshop's workflow.

• Acrobat Reader will incorporate the Flash player and vice-versa.

• Director? Who knows?

• InDesign will be sold to Quark. No, just kidding about that one.

A lot of paperwork and legal stuff needs to happen before Adobe takes over, so the final merged corporation won't be around until this fall. For the time being it's business as usual -- the two companies will remain separate entities, and the product lines will continue as is. Creative Suite 2 will be marketed with full fury, I'm sure, and according to Adobe, the release of a new version of Macromedia's Studio MX scheduled for later this year will be unaffected.

[ David Sawyer McFarland is the author of Dreamweaver MX 2004: The Missing Manual (O'Reilly, 2004). ]

This story, "Analysis: Considering Adobe's future" was originally published by PCWorld.

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