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Adobe reboots for apps and Web--with dash of Flash

Those who would find fault with Adobe for living in the past need to rethink their positions, because the company is serious about Web and mobile technologies.

Adobe's CSS shaders let this Google Maps page be folded like a real map.
Adobe's CSS shaders let this Google Maps Web page be folded like a real map.
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

commentary For all the folks out there who love to bash Adobe Systems for its Flash Player software, it's time to take a fresh look at the company.

Because today's Adobe is very different than the one that long promoted Flash as the way to a rich, interactive Web. Adobe is being reborn as a Web technology company that is advancing Web standards, not promoting its own in-house technology alternative at the expense of those standards.

It's not just Web standards making an appearance, either. Adobe also is moving beyond the personal-computer era with serious apps for tablets. It's a natural fit for the affluent, creative set that gravitates to Adobe's software, but it's a big change in development and sales for the company.

It's not clear to what extent Adobe's new initiatives will succeed in making the company relevant with modern computing trends. But it's time to give the company credit for adapting.

Actions speak louder than words
Adobe has been talking about its Web work for years now, but actions speak louder than words. Here are major recent moves--some announced this week at the Max conference--that show the company's new Web priorities:

• It's working on software called Edge to let people design dynamic, interactive Web sites. It's developing Edge in public with preview releases that give the company a way to discuss priorities with developers and respond to feedback. Edge is designed to be a tool for professionals.

• It's taking a leadership role in creating standards, notably with the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) standard for Web page formatting. Adobe has pushed ahead with CSS Regions and Exclusions for advanced, magazine-like text flow around and within objects, and added to that this week with CSS Shaders, for programmable, animated control over Web pages' 3D geometry and color effects. It's directly building browser code within the WebKit project to support the ideas.

Related stories:
• Adobe sharpens Edge for advanced HTML
• Adobe buys PhoneGap, TypeKit for better Web tools
• Adobe debuts Muse, a no-code-required site builder

• It's buying its way into new Web markets. At Max, Adobe announced it's buying Nitobi, whose PhoneGap software helps Web developers reach multiple mobile phones without having to worry too much about the particulars of each design. And Adobe isn't burying the software as a proprietary tool: PhoneGap has been submitted as an open-source software project at the Apache Software Foundation, and Adobe is "fully supportive" of the move.

• Adobe also bought TypeKit, which offers a subscription service for using Web fonts so designers can better match the variety and quality seen in print. Some object to the subscription payment mechanism, but the CSS font technology is gaining credence for those who care about type on the Web, and Adobe long has catered to that sort of customer.

• Adobe is very active in jQuery Mobile, an open-source software that provides Web developers with a library of pre-written code for advanced interfaces on mobile devices. Adobe announced the jQuery Mobile 1.0 release candidate 1 this week.

• For visual designers of Web pages, Adobe is working on a new tool called Muse that aims to shield people from the difficulties of Web coding.

The moves are serious, especially given that the world of the Web is very different from the world of Flash. Many different companies and organizations collectively build the technologies that make up the Web, whereas Flash was firmly under Adobe's control.

But clearly Adobe has recognized Web programming can't be ignored. And after all, it's a company that sells tools for design and development, not the Flash Player itself. So while the Web may be the Wild West compared to Flash, it's still a place where the company sees profit.

Flash Player logo

Flash is alive and well
Just because Adobe is eager to embrace the new ways doesn't mean it's abandoned Flash. Rather, Adobe is positioning it as a higher-end technology for situations when Web standards won't do.

Flash haters--and they are legion--can object that Adobe isn't scrapping Flash altogether. But that would be foolish for the company.

Even if Adobe believes Flash is headed for the dustbin of history, and I'm not convinced it is, abandoning Flash now would be like trying to change horses at a gallop while shooting the one you're trying to climb off.

Adobe has plenty of work for Flash, still. Improving its performance on mobile devices and convincing programmers to use it there is one. Improving its performance on personal computers is important, too, with today's laptop-centric era making people intolerant of battery-sucking technologies.

But hardware-accelerated graphics should help with the performance problem with one of the key areas for Flash relevance, games. The brand-new Flash 11 has just that, an interface for 2D and 3D graphics.

Angry Birds get Flash-happy
Indeed, Adobe got everybody's favorite casual game designer, Rovio Mobile of Angry Birds fame, to endorse Flash. At Max, Rovio showed off an upcoming version of Angry Birds built with Flash 11's hardware-accelerated graphics. Andrew Stalbow, general manager of Rovio's North American operations, said the new version, due "in the next few months," will let the company reach more people than the 400 million people who've downloaded the game.

Rovio Mobile showed Angry Birds running on Flash 11 at Adobe Systems' Max conference.
Rovio Mobile showed Angry Birds running on Flash 11 at Adobe Systems' Max conference. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

"Our goal is to deliver Angry Birds to every device, platform, and person around the world," Stalbow said. "We're excited about working with Flash 11 to reach a whole new audience...It's going to help us reach social networks, whether domestically or internationally.

Flash 11's "Molehill" interface, which lets programmers tap into a computing device's graphical processing unit (GPU), is used in a new Angry Birds game engine, Stalbow said. "We can use the power of the GPU to really enhance our 2D experience...We've got five times more particles in our explosions and special effects," he said.

But Rovio is probably a good example of the role Flash plays: it's a tool for writing games, but no longer the primary tool. Rovio also has native iOS and Android versions of its game, and through a promotional partnership with Google, built one using Web standards, too.

Flash also survives as an embedded technology that people might not even know is being used. That's because it's a component of AIR, a programming foundation from Adobe that lets people create standalone applications that use Flash or Web technologies.

Reaching mobile devices
The new AIR 3, released this week along with Flash 11, features "captive runtime" technology that help developers distribute AIR apps to places where Flash isn't welcome--iOS devices or the forthcoming Metro interface for Windows 8. That technology is what powers Machinarium, the visually rich game that climbed to the top of the iPad sales charts a month ago.

AIR also plays a role in at least some of Adobe's Touch apps for tablets, a new suite of six professional programs arriving for $10 each this November. They'll be on Android Honeycomb tablets at first, with one exception that also runs on iOS, but iPad-compatible versions look likely to arrive in 2012.

Adobe Photoshop Touch for Android tablets
Adobe Photoshop Touch for Android tablets Adobe Systems

Theoretically, at least, producing iOS versions shouldn't be hard to accomplish given the cross-platform nature of AIR packaging, but it could be that Adobe wants to start cautiously with second-tier tablets, give Google a little help with Honeycomb promotion, and get more time to bake its iOS versions.

Another mobile project is the new Digital Publishing Suite Single Edition announced this week. This tool lets those who create content with Adobe's InDesign software turn it into a packaged version that, through an Adobe service, can be distributed on Apple's App Store.

Overall, then, it's become apparent that--notwithstanding some difference of opinion--Adobe actually agrees with Steve Jobs' view that "Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future."

The spat between Adobe and Apple took a toll, with "many at Adobe questioned the wisdom of building iPad apps, or whether we'd even be allowed to ship them," according to senior product manager John Nack, who oversees the tablet work. He chose to ask Jobs himself, who answered by e-mail: "We'd love some kick-ass Adobe apps on the iPad...Hope this helps." It did indeed help, Nack said.

Of course, Jobs didn't like Flash and Adobe still does. But--as with Microsoft offering Windows Phone and Windows, Apple offering iOS and Mac OS, Google offering Chrome OS and Android--big companies often have multiple agendas they choose to pursue simultaneously. Advocating Flash and Web standards need not be mutually exclusive activities.

Adobe's Web and mobile work, while still relatively new for Adobe, is more than just window dressing. Critics will still be able to find fault with Adobe, but they'll need to work a little harder now.

Updated 6:03 a.m. PT with Steve Jobs anecdote from John Nack.