Apple v Adobe: some lessons from history

With Steve Jobs’ recent attack on Flash and Kevin Lynch’s response, the Apple-Adobe war is escalating. Jobs’ post claims to make the case against Flash purely on objective technology grounds, but as Darien Graham-Smith’s in-depth response shows, “Six reasons why Steve Jobs is wrong on Flash”, that case is far from convincing and the truth is that Jobs’ antipathy to Adobe is deeply personal and rooted in history.

Apple v Adobe: some lessons from history

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To understand why, it’s important to realise that this isn’t the first time that Apple has declared war on Adobe. The big difference is that previously Apple was right…

As Jobs explains in the introductory paragraph of his “Thoughts on Flash” piece:

Apple has a long relationship with Adobe. In fact, we met Adobe’s founders when they were in their proverbial garage. Apple was their first big customer, adopting their Postscript language for our new Laserwriter printer.

It was this fateful meeting back in 1983 that kick-started the desktop publishing revolution allowing the same page that would be output from the high-resolution imagesetter to be proofed accurately on a low-cost laser.

This gave the Mac the commercial edge it needed to justify its high price in the design studio, but it also effectively (and almost literally) gave Adobe a license to print money. The resulting revenue river came not just from Adobe’s PostScript-based printer controllers but, crucially, from the software that ran on them – scalable Type 1 PostScript fonts.

The big problem came when Adobe refused to either open up the Type 1 specification or to lower its licensing prices – why should it when designers were clearly willing to pay? Adobe was coining it, but only by milking its customers and, in the process, stifling the spread of the Mac and of design-rich GUI-based personal computing.

Eventually, around 1989, Apple’s CEO John Sculley was forced to do the unthinkable and approach Microsoft to together develop the alternative TrueType font format (and TrueImage PostScript language clone which Microsoft duly failed to deliver). When the threat became clear, Adobe angrily defended its monopoly claiming that the market would be flooded with inferior fonts.

This indeed came to pass, but not because of any technological inferiority (with onscreen as well as print-based hinting TrueType technology was actually superior), but rather because of the open license-free nature of the format, the much larger cross-platform design/business/personal audience and the workings of market forces. Market forces which also quickly ensured an explosion of inexpensive and free high quality TrueType fonts and the eventual demise of Type 1 (subsumed into OpenType).

Adobe’s golden goose had been shot. However, another important lesson from history is the law of unintended consequences. The clear winner from Apple’s attack on Adobe turned out to be Microsoft who, through TrueType, had effectively been gifted the keys to typographically-rich GUI computing. The result was 1991’s Windows 3.1 and near-total market dominance.

This in turn proved the saving of Adobe which quickly learned to embrace the benefits of more open standards across the new wider cross-platform market. In just a few years, Adobe completely reinvented its entire business model by first turning PostScript into Acrobat PDF and then building up its range of creative applications for both Mac and now Windows.

As for poor Apple, having broken Adobe’s monopoly and restrictive practices, its reward was to see Microsoft reap the benefits in terms of business and personal computing . Worse was to come as Adobe took its revenge by removing Apple’s unique selling point: its previously exclusive design studio credentials. Soon Adobe began producing applications for Windows first and sometimes exclusively (eventually even refusing Jobs’ personal request to develop its video apps for the Mac).

The result was what Jobs’ post calls Apple’s “near-death experience”, his 1997 recall from NeXT (where he had been working with Adobe on a range of expensive high-end workstations offering PostScript-based displays) and the humiliation of having to beg Microsoft to keep Apple afloat while he in turn oversaw the reinvention of Apple’s own business model built around the iMac, iPod, iPhone and now iPad.

It’s a complicated history and no doubt others will read it in other ways. However I think it’s impossible to buy Jobs’ argument that his current stance regarding Flash is all about “leaving the past behind.” Jobs is clearly, and understandably, enjoying Apple’s restored power and his moment of revenge.

Ultimately though Apple’s latest battle with Adobe is more than personal and very straightforward – it’s a simple question of business. If you had a license to print money would you give it up without a fight?

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