Straight talking 55

by Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson is worried that Adobe is leaving developers uncertain of the future of key products.

HardCopy Issue: 55 | Published: February 1, 2012

Businesses like safe bets. When the future of a platform is in doubt, it is hard to justify investment in projects based on that platform. That is common sense, and makes it all the more curious when companies undermine their own platforms by putting out confusing messages about future strategy.

This practice is surprisingly common. In June 2011, Microsoft gave an early demonstration of Windows 8, explaining that apps for the new platform would be developed with HTML and JavaScript. Microsoft had spent the previous ten years evangelising the .NET Framework. Developers put this together with the downplaying of Silverlight at the company’s late 2010 Professional Developers Conference and became uncertain about the future, not only for Silverlight but for .NET itself. Would the new app model in Windows 8 work with .NET applications? What is happening to Windows Presentation Foundation?

As it turned out, those questions were not answered until the BUILD conference in September 2011, a gap of three months during which Microsoft chose not to comment. Microsoft platform developers offering solutions to clients had no clear answer if a potential customer, or a rival supplier, questioned the future of .NET and pointed to statements about JavaScript and HTML5 becoming the development platform of Windows 8.

Now it is Adobe’s turn. In November 2011 it issued a press release announcing a shift in business focus, “to target the explosive growth categories of Digital Media and Digital Marketing.” The other side of this coin was that Adobe would “reduce its investment, and expected license revenue, in certain enterprise solution product lines.”

What did this mean? Great news, of course, for Adobe’s digital media and marketing products, but the implications for developers have been drip-fed through a number of statements, blog posts and reports of meetings. VP Danny Winnokur posted on 9 November that “Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores. We will no longer continue to develop Flash Player in the browser to work with new mobile device configurations.” It seemed that while mobile Flash was dead, mobile AIR, which compiles the Flash runtime into an app, was alive and well.

Next, on 15 November, product manager Deepa Subramaniam posted that while Adobe is still “committed” to Flex, the XML-based approach to coding for Flash, it is shifting engineers from Flex to HTML and donating the Flex SDK to the Apache Foundation as an open source project. “We recognize we could have handled the communication better,” she adds.

Adobe MAX photo

More bad news came in December from reports of a meeting with Flex developers in San Francisco. While reiterating its commitment to Flex, Adobe also revealed that Flash Catalyst, its interactive design tool, is to be discontinued; and that the design view will be removed from the Flash Builder IDE, as well as the Data Centric Development tools.

In the meantime, there was news of redundancies at Adobe among staff who had worked on enterprise development. “A ton of really talented people got let go. This is one of the strangest things I ever saw,” posted Duane Nickull, formerly a senior technical evangelist.

The reasons are certainly strategic, rather than being forced through financial necessity. Adobe is doing well financially, and reported an 11 per cent year-on-year revenue increase in its latest results, announced in December 2011. It generated $1.5 billion in cash.

Then in January, VP Arun Anantharaman posted about the future of LiveCycle, Adobe’s middleware and Enterprise services product, stating that Adobe is “prioritizing our engineering investment” around several core services. These include modules to handle PDF forms, rights, output, process management, digital signatures and PDF generation, the Workbench and Designer tools, the Correspondence Management solution, ECM connectors for SharePoint, Filenet and Documentum, and LiveCycle Data Services.

What is missing? It is easy to spot some things, such as the composite application model called ‘Mosaic’, the other solution accelerators, and Collaboration Services. More striking though is the uncertainty about Adobe’s overall strategy. It was only in June 2011 that Adobe was talking proudly about its new Digital Enterprise Platform, which was meant to be replacing LiveCycle.

The background to ADEP (Adobe Digital Enterprise Platform) is this. In October 2010 Adobe acquired Day Software and with it the foremost REST (Representational State Transfer) expert Roy Fielding. Day’s core product is a Web content manager called CQ5 which is built on a Java-based repository called CRX. Fielding’s vision for CRX included not only Web content but enterprise applications: “The Content Repository API for Java Technology (JCR) is poised to revolutionize the development of J2SE/J2EETM applications in the same way that the Web has revolutionized the development of network-based applications,” he wrote in a white paper.

ADEP is or was Adobe’s implementation of that vision. Adobe strategist Ben Watson told me that “The core of the platform now becomes the repository that we got from the Day acquisition. We are also following their leadership around the use of RESTful technology, so changing how we do our Web services implementation, how we do our real time data integration into Flash using data services.”

Adobe’s ADEP Web site still presents this vision, while the LiveCycle page states that “The next evolution of LiveCycle is here. The new Adobe Digital Enterprise Platform (ADEP) brings together core LiveCycle capabilities and much more.” However, these pages are unchanged since Adobe’s November announcement, and it is not clear what the strategy is now. It seems telling that Anantharaman wrote in January about LiveCycle futures, not ADEP futures. A reasonable guess is that the CQ capabilities will stay focused on Web content rather than application services, and that LiveCycle will remain with its somewhat cut-down range of services.

The high level point is that Adobe’s customers should not have to scrabble around for titbits of information regarding what is happening to its enterprise platform. Everyone understands that the IT world is constantly changing, because of the rapid advance of technology, and that plans which seemed sensible a few years back may no longer make sense today. Adobe has seen the rise of Apple with its dislike of Flash, the growing use of Smartphones, the advent of the iPad and other media tablets that are changing client computing, and the previews of Windows 8 showing a new locked-down, Flash-free personality. It has also seen the eBook revolution driven by Amazon and Apple and wants to remain at the centre of the digital publishing world.

Jonathan Campos is Principal Architect at Miller and Associates, working on Android, Flex and AIR development. “The consistency of Adobe AIR provides a stable environment to build, test, and deploy that no other platform can touch,” he says. “The drawback is Adobe’s recent focus away from development tools and more on digital marketing and media. This makes me, and many others, wonder what sort of development tools will be coming out in the future for enterprise development.”

Change and the need for change is expected; but the way these major strategy shifts is managed and communicated is critical. Adobe has not handled this well.

Fortunately, there is a positive side to Adobe’s strategy shift. This is that the company now has a clear focus on HTML5. The consequence is that future versions of the Creative Suite will be less dependent on the Flash runtime. Tools like Adobe Edge, which authors HTML5 animations, will evolve rapidly, and designers can also expect Dreamweaver to gain more advanced capabilities.

Flash is still important, of course, particularly on the desktop where it remains invaluable for overcoming cross-browser issues and for delivering multimedia content. It is worth recalling that Adobe has recently delivered Flash Player 11, including the hardware accelerated graphics rendering engine called Stage 3D, enabling console-like gaming but running in the browser. This is supported in Adobe AIR as well. Adobe’s new focus does not make Flash any less capable. “We are already working on Flash Player 12,” says VP Dany Winokur, adding that “we will design new features in Flash for a smooth transition to HTML5 as the standards evolve.”