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Adobe moves further into Google's orbit

Google's Android operating system may be the most important external project to Adobe: without it, Adobe's mobile strategy would be in tatters.

SAN FRANCISCO--If Adobe Systems had its druthers, Google Android would turn into the Microsoft Windows of the 21st century.

If there was any doubt that Adobe's mobile strategy is now tied to the long-term success of Android, it was removed by a day-long presentation by Adobe executives and managers about how Adobe is adapting its technologies to Android. Dubbed the "Android Summit," the series of presentations to the press emphasized how core Adobe technologies such as Flash and AIR are being optimized for Android on phones, tablets, and eventually televisions when Google TV is released.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, left unsaid during the series of presentations was one of the reasons why Adobe has fallen in love with Android. Adobe originally sought Apple as a partner, dating back to at least 2008 as iPhone growth exploded. But the Apple-Adobe rift was the story of this past spring, with Apple CEO Steve Jobs bashing Flash and Adobe in an open letter, Google and Adobe firing back during the Google I/O event in May, and the official shift of the battleground in the Great Fanboy Wars from Windows versus Mac to Android versus iPhone.

But Adobe has also been targeting Android for quite some time. As far back as November 2008 it was clear Apple didn't have much interest in working with Adobe, and development work on what would become Flash Player 10.1 started began on the G1 device, the first Android phone released, said Paul Betlem, senior director of engineering at Adobe.

Adobe sent a team of engineers down to Mountain View, Calif., to work with Google's Android team, and the two companies collaborated on the development of several aspects of the 10.1 Flash player, Betlem said. Adobe has since thrown its weight behind other Google Android-based projects, such as Google TV.

In reality, the two companies need each other. While Google is as big a proponent of the HTML5 technologies that may one day make Adobe's Flash technologies a thing of the past, that day is pretty far into the future. Adobe's support gives Google an easy-to-understand comparison against Apple and the iPhone in carrier stores today, allowing Android phone makers to promise customers that they can play a wide variety of Internet video and games that the iPhone and iPad can't.

It also allows Google to continue to claim the moral high ground by supporting other companies' freedom to run their technologies on their platform, as opposed to Apple CEO Steve Jobs' my-way-or-the-highway approach. Jobs' strategy may have its merits--evidenced in the knocks against Android, namely its fragmentation and inconsistent user experience across devices--but it doesn't sit well with many a software developer that Google and Adobe are hoping to turn to their side with the hope that their applications will be compelling.

Regular consumers may not care about passionate geek debates about the meaning of the word "open," partly because, as Adobe's chief open-source evangelist Dave McAllister opined, "open is currently the most misused word in the English language by far."

But developers do care about the freedom to develop applications the way they see fit and the ability to run those applications on more than one type of hardware. Despite the opportunities that the iPhone has provided, Adobe and Google are fighting hard to sway those developers to their side.

The potential problem is that many in the technology and media landscapes view Flash as a stop-gap technology; the good-for-now solution as opposed to the future backbone of Internet-delivered applications. The early success of Apple's iPad is prompting media companies to start developing HTML5 versions of their sites, albeit with some notable exceptions such as Hulu, and even Google believes that HTML5 is the future of the Internet-delivered application.

The Motorola Droid 2, the first Android smartphone to ship with Adobe's Flash Player 10.1 preinstalled.
The Motorola Droid 2, the first Android smartphone to ship with Adobe's Flash Player 10.1 preinstalled. Sarah Tew/CNET

For now, however, Adobe and Google have struck a partnership of convenience based on mutual need and mutual distrust of Apple's intentions for the mobile computing market. It's not that Adobe has turned a blind eye to the rest of the mobile computing market: it plans to make Flash available on Research In Motion's BlackBerry software as well as Hewlett-Packard's WebOS and Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Phone 7, company officials said Monday. As for Apple, any chance of detente in that relationship seems unlikely.

But Flash will have its most immediate impact on Android, which has surpassed the iPhone and BlackBerry to become the leading smartphone operating system in the U.S. Almost overnight with the release of the Droid 2 last week--the first smartphone to ship with Android 2.2 and Flash Player 10.1 preinstalled--Android users had a wealth of Flash games to choose from, a key selling point against the plethora of games found in Apple's App Store that will get stronger as more and more Android users upgrade to 2.2.

More and more serious application developers are starting to think about Android as a viable alternative to the iPhone after years of App Store madness, and the addition of Flash-based opportunities can only help expand the pool of developers creating apps for Android phones (Flash workarounds for the iOS world aren't dependable). The key question for Google and Adobe is whether they can deliver on the performance issues and user-interface weirdness that have plagued Flash on mobile to date, and whether developers start to see as many opportunities in Android as they have in the iPhone.

Adobe still makes a lot of money selling "shrink-wrapped" software, such as Photoshop, Lightroom, and software development environments like Dreamweaver. However, no modern tech company can afford to ignore the shift to mobile computing, and for Adobe, the road is being paved by Google.