An “Adobe” of Creativity

Which is tougher, being creative or making being creative possible? The question is a bit unorthodox, but if you feel that facilitating creativity is as much a challenge as being creative itself, you would agree that Adobe has done a wonderful job at it. If you are someone in the digital creativity business, Adobe is probably a way of life for you. If you are an adherent fan of the digital world, you probably have run into Adobe at almost every turn. Right from the music album art in an I-pod, to the e-version of the i-pod manual (hope it has one), there’s a high probability that adobe software had a role to play in them.

Be it a web report or a product manual or any other digital document meant for wide circulation, PDF is the format of choice for distributing them in. One of the main features responsible for the success of the format is the fact that the document can be read on various operating systems and still retain the presentation format. Portability and interoperability are the two important bywords, for success in today’s diverse personal computer scenario.

It is to Adobe’s credit that its success with PDF is not an isolated one time show. Adobe has managed to do it again and again. Be it Photoshop for Image editing or Premiere for movie editing, Adobe is known to set and redefine the limits. If you have the audacity to call your software ‘Photoshop’ and sell it to photographers and end users alike, guess that itself speaks for what great a piece of work the software does.

With the rise of video sharing sites like YouTube and Google video, Adobe has managed to do it yet again. This time its trump card is the Adobe flash player, the video player of choice for most of the current generation web sites.

Flash player didn’t always belong to Adobe. In a bid to become the colossus of the creative world adobe acquired Macromedia, the original makers of Flash, in 2005. The acquisition was done by a 3.4 billion dollar stock swap, by which Macromedia stockholders came to hold almost 18% of Adobe’s stock. Not a very big amount in Wall Street terms. But the timing of the acquisition couldn’t have been better. Flash player had already a reportedly 98% penetration on internet enabled personal computers. Flash and shockwave, both owned by Macromedia, were emerging as the De facto standard for delivering animated content to the customer. They used a vector based technology, which was a big improvement from gif images, in addition to supporting sound and providing possibility of user interaction also. And all this was made possible within the browser window.

YouTube, which started operation in 2005, adopted flash player to deliver online video streaming to its users. The success of YouTube spawned a lot more sites all of which started using flash player to deliver video content. The pre flash player era, was dominated by Microsoft (Windows Media Player), Real Networks (Real Player) and Apple (QuickTime). Their biggest drawback was that none of these players was ubiquitous. Any single content had to be in 2 or more formats to reach a wide audience. Well not anymore thanks to a near monopoly by Adobe.

The success of flash partly lies in the way it started out. It was just an animation platform which made it possible to develop multimedia rich internet applications. Flash was used by web developers to put up content as well as ads on their sites. Now ads were everywhere, the user had to at sometime or the other install Flash player, as his browser could not display those ads without it.

The market penetration brought with it untold possibilities. Flash was developed as a technology platform from which video could also be delivered to the customer. And it was exactly at this moment that Adobe took over. Adobe was a video and image editing mammoth, with their documentation products targeted at the corporate, video and image editing products focused at designers and casual users. The potential to own a video delivery platform as promising as Flash, was enough for adobe to pursue the deal.

From 2005 onwards, it has been a complete rout of the big giants and most certainly redefining the web. Online video streaming market has become the forte of Adobe. Integration between its image, sound and video authoring tools and an effective content delivery mechanism in the form of Flash player has made Adobe one of the most diversified but still focused software companies. The whole of the digital creative content is a fief of Adobe. The acquisition of Macromedia filled in the missing spaces and strengthened the areas where they had common products.

Flash is everywhere on the web, Google Video, YouTube, Metcafe or the ads, the list is endless. In fact according to Adobe, Flash owns 81% of online video market share. But like any technology company, Adobe position is not cemented enough to last an eternity. Both Microsoft and Apple are trying to come up with alternatives for Flash player and also in the process try to redefine the web as we know it. The software which they once called too light on features is what they are trying to emulate and surpass now. Microsoft Silverlight is a potential competitor to Adobe Flash player. One of the examples of what is possible with Silverlight can be seen from a Microsoft lab project called Yuva. But Silverlight is more than just a video player. Its true power is yet to be seen.

But Flash Video’s ultimate challenge might not come from its competitors but, from the industry it serves. Video producers have had to pay royalties to Adobe for using Flash video. All that might change if HTML5 is allowed to have its way. Though it’s a long way from becoming a reality, YouTube is already experimenting with HTML5 to eliminate the need for Flash Player and let the browser do the rendering by itself, without any plug-ins.

Adobe seems to be moving fast to ensure that Flash remains at the forefront of video technology in the foreseeable future. As part of the Open Screen project initiative, adobe has started distributing for free the specifications to SWF (to an extent) and FLV. This means that developers would be able to use flash video for free without paying royalties to Adobe.

But it is also a remarkable change in the business plan of Adobe, post-Macromedia era. The latest updates from Adobe labs regarding the upcoming Creative Suite 5, indicate that flash and its other products are being given some major facelift. For example, Flash is being given a custom physics engine, which might make Flash the Maya of the 2D world. Not only that, there also seems to be a conscious move towards server rendered games. A technology which will make it possible to play games you play on the computer, equally well on a handheld also. This is possible because processing will be done on the server instead of the client. With today’s computing power and internet speeds, this can very well become a reality. Server rendered games might be the next killer application for the new web.

The changing dynamics of the modern digital world has made it impossible for technology companies to keep still. Adobe, though given the time it has been around, bears no resemblance to a complacent sleeping giant. It’s constantly innovating, looking at new markets and making the right moves at the right time. So, will Adobe be able to keep on the momentum it has and continue the strong show it has put up till now, is still to be seen. For as the saying goes, “Nothing is over till the fat lady sings”. And in today’s technology business, she never might.

Sylvester Pious

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