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Adobe modernizes with tablet tool, mobile AIR

Tablets, smartphones, and TVs--oh my! At its Max conference, Adobe will show off results of work to retool its products for computing devices beyond just personal computers.

Adobe wants to spread Flash and AIR to a multitude of computing devices.
Adobe wants to spread Flash and AIR to a multitude of computing devices.
Adobe Systems

Adobe Systems, whose software has been derided by Apple CEO Steve Jobs as a relic from a bygone PC age, is showing signs that it's adapting to today's computing realities.

Plenty of Adobe applications remain industry staples--Photoshop for image editing and Flash Player for watching videos on the Web, for example. But computing is growing in new directions with smartphones, tablets, and Net-connected TVs. This week at its Max conference for developers and others using Adobe tools, though, new-era software will take center stage.

First is an extension to InDesign layout and publishing software that will endow the Creative Suite software with the ability to target tablets with interactive content. Today that means Apple iPads, but tomorrow it'll mean a host of competitors, too.

Second is the arrival of a new foundation for stand-alone applications, AIR 2.5, which extends the Flash cousin to smartphones, TVs, and tablets. Adobe plans to detail the work beginning Monday at Max.

AIR apparent

For years, Adobe has been touting its AIR foundation as a way to bring Net-enabled applications to a variety of devices, but only now is it beginning to arrive on high-end mobile devices--starting with Android phones. The software foundation can run apps written to use Adobe's Flash Player and a built-in WebKit browser engine that can handle a variety of Web technologies.

AIR 2.5 includes Flash Player 10.1 technology, including the ability to employ a device's accelerometer, location-reporting service, camera, microphone, and multitouch screen. It has support for hardware acceleration on a variety of mobile processors and has a built-in database for caching application data when there's no network connection.

As with Flash, Adobe sees the big benefit of AIR to be easier programming for those who want their software to run across a multitude of devices. Of course that challenge gets harder as the computing world grows beyond personal computers.

Meteor Storm, an AIR-based game available for Android devices.
Meteor Storm, an AIR-based game available for Android devices AppBrain

"We built the Web as a really compelling, great way to reach the broadest possible audience. Apps are an extension of that experience," said Anup Murarka, Adobe's director of product marketing for the Flash platform. AIR lets programmers keep their skills, work flow, and programming tools on the new generation of mobile and connected devices, he argued.

But Adobe faces significant challenges. Apple's clout is immense right now, with many programmers working to write native applications for the trio of iOS devices--the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. And Flash for mobile, though no longer vaporware, is still only present on a few high-end devices, so its cross-platform programming promise is hobbled at present.

Flash is gradually spreading--Hewlett-Packard's WebOS 2.0 and the first Google TV products are the latest to get support--but Adobe now has to reproduce its corporate partnership strategy with AIR.

That could be harder than with Flash. Flash is widely used on the Web today, but AIR remains confined to a more technical niche. It's a problem when the multitude of Web pages with Flash-based or games video don't work. But AIR hasn't achieved the incumbent status Flash enjoys, which means consumers more likely won't really notice its absence.

Adobe, naturally, is working hard to drum up support in the form of applications. AppBrain has a list of AIR apps for Android. Many of these also can be found on Apple's App Store for iPhones, courtesy of Apple's reversal of an earlier ban of Flash-derived applications on iOS.

Adobe had killed development of the Flash Pro CS5 tool that let people recraft their Flash and AIR apps for iOS, but it's been resurrected with Apple's more moderate stance, leading to the presence of Fruit Smash Organic and other AIR-based games.

The push-pull strategy of promoting AIR both by fueling application development and by securing partnerships to install the technology is important. Adobe wants to do more, though. One example: The company is working on a service to let programmers submit their applications to the increasing number of app stores through which most folks get their mobile device software.

"It's a single portal to submit applications," Murarka said. "We're going to do the integration with the app stores to make it easier for developers to get into those distribution channels."

iPad publishing and beyond

Adobe is of course strong among the content creation crowd that edits photos and videos, build Web sites, and produce magazines. Also at Max, the company plans to release software that helps bridge the world of print-based publications to digital.

The iPad embodies the new-age digital publishing ethos today: graphics can move, audio quotations can be included, videos can play, and publishers can see just what users are interested in. Adobe's tools--standalone test versions initially but integrated with its InDesign layout software eventually--are designed for this more interactive era.

"We feel this digital publishing suite is going to solve a lot of the challenges publishers have been facing for the last 5 or 10 years," said Lynly Schambers, Adobe's principal marketing manager working on digital publishing.

The software is set to come out of beta in the second quarter of 2011, Schambers said, and will cost $699 and up.

Adobe has previewed this iPad-izer digital publishing software earlier this year. It's used in iPad applications from Wired magazine and the New Yorker, but there are more to come, she said.

Specifically, she pointed to publications including iGizmo, Spin, Sabado, Martha Stewart Living, and National Geographic. "We hope to bring out 20 more magazines in the next month or so," she said.

And here, too, Adobe's cross-platform argument plays a role.

Today, "the iPad is pretty much the only game in town, but it's clear there's going to be a plethora of tablets and other devices hitting the market early next year. Five or six will bubble to the top," Schambers said.

In a parallel to its work with AIR and app stores, Adobe wants to play a role in distributing content on behalf of digital publishing partners.

"We're looking at ways to help publishers distribute content to all these different marketplaces," she said. "We'll have more information in coming months."

The technology works by using what amounts to an e-reading vessel installed on tablets or other devices. That content viewer retrieves the latest digital issue from Adobe. The issue itself is made up of a PNG graphic combined with XML data that defines what interactivity is built in, said Stephen Hart, digital publishing solutions manager for Adobe.

Adobe's digital publishing suite will cost $699 in a Pro version and a custom-negotiated price for a higher-end Enterprise edition. Both include services by which Adobe helps to create a branded version of the content viewer software and Omniture-based analytics tools to monitor how readers use the publications. The Enterprise edition also includes more extensive consultation for integrating with a customer's existing publishing infrastructure.

Digital publishing has the potential to help restore the flagging fortunes of print publications, though there are plenty of complications such as the appropriateness of app stores for restoring subscription revenue. It's not clear whether publishers are towing Adobe into the latest digital publishing realm or vice-versa, but it's clear both need to go there.