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Apple, Adobe drifting apart

The longstanding relationship between Adobe Systems and Apple Computer is showing strain lately from various competitive and business forces.

They share an area code, a customer segment and a history dating back to the early days of personal computing. But Apple Computer and Adobe Systems, like many in long-term relationships, have seen the 20-years-and-counting bond between them run hot and cold.


What's new:
The longstanding relationship between Adobe Systems and Apple Computer is showing strain lately from various competitive and business forces.

Bottom line:
Apple and Adobe were pioneers in developing the desktop publishing market, but with Windows gaining popularity among users there, Adobe increasingly is pushing its software to PCs.

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Right now, it's in a colder period. Signs of frost have been accumulating for the past couple of years, with Adobe dropping Macintosh support for several software products and introducing others as Microsoft Windows-only applications. At the same time, Apple has quietly pushed Adobe out of a few markets by selling its own applications or bundling them into its OS X operating system.

Analysts and customers say that while the two are likely to be close partners for many more years, the relationship has become more distant.

"They really needed each other 10 or 20 years ago; that's clearly less important now," said Jeffrey Tarter, the editor of software industry newsletter Softletter. "Windows has finally become adequate as a publishing platform," he said, meaning graphics professionals can switch to a cheaper platform than the Mac.

"Given the original relationship was intensely symbiotic, both for product and ownership and financing, the current relationship can only be characterized as arms-length," said Roland Dumas, an Adobe customer and the owner of San Mateo, Calif.-based management consulting service Roberts Information Services.

Adobe and Apple representatives declined to comment for this story.

Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen addressed the company's relationship with Apple in an interview last year: "Our relationship with Apple is a great one," he said. "My relationship with (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs continues to be extremely strong--we communicate on a regular basis. Where we compete, we've agreed to compete. Where we partner, we partner aggressively...At the end of the day, we both have a vested interest in doing what's right for the creative professional customer."

"Our relationship with Apple is like a relationship in any marriage, good or bad," Chizen added at the time. "It's an important relationship for both of us to maintain and make stronger, knowing that there are differences."

Those mounting differences include:
• Adobe dropping support for several Mac products, most recently its FrameMaker publishing software and most notably its Premiere video editing application, whose demise as a Mac application was attributed to strong competition from Apple's Final Cut programs.

• Several new Adobe products have been introduced in Windows-only versions. In the case of Atmosphere, a new 3D animation application, the decision to skip the Mac was attributed to a small pool of potential customers. In the case of Photoshop Album, a light-duty consumer photo application, a similar application was already built into OS X. With its Encore DVD-authoring package, Adobe again pointed to competition from an Apple video application.

• Adobe caused a stir among Apple devotees last year by republishing test results that showed certain Adobe applications running faster on Windows PCs than on Macs.

• Adobe, which could once be relied upon to turn up at any Apple gathering, has skipped several Macworld events in recent years.

Longstanding relationship
The Adobe-Apple relationship dates back to Adobe's origins in the early 1980s as the developer of PostScript, a font technology that made it possible to achieve attractive printed output from a PC. Apple latched onto the technology to promote desktop publishing, turning it into one of the key drivers for early Mac sales.

"At one point, they really were joined at the hip in terms of technology and even marketing," Tarter said. "Adobe made possible good laser printer output, and Apple produced a platform that's good for typography."

Since then, however, Windows has gradually become more capable as a publishing platform. It has drained off support from one of Apple's key customer bases, the "creative professionals" who work in graphic design, publishing and other visually demanding fields.

"It used to be that virtually the only platform the graphics artist used was Mac," Tarter said. "Now there's probably parity in terms of capabilities between Windows machines and Macs, and Adobe just naturally has started paying more attention to Microsoft and less to Apple. That's the primary reason I see for a drifting apart--it's numbers."

Other observers agreed. "With (Apple's) shrinking market share, it's a simple economic decision," said Burt Janz, a Mac user and the president of Nashua, N.H.-based computer services firm CCS New England. He questioned whether it was sensible for Adobe to sell an application in a market so small that sales are unlikely to cover development and support costs.

Other Adobe and Mac loyalists insist the companies are still on good terms and simply making prudent business decisions. Owensboro, Ky., illustrator Chad Hamlet noted that Adobe was an early supporter of OS X and has been one of the first to exploit new Mac hardware capabilities.

"I think Apple and Adobe's relationship has been the same, maybe even better than a few years ago," Martin said. "If you recall, Adobe was one of the first companies to have an optimized version of their software running on a (Mac) G5, using the 64-bit functionality of the G5 processors."

Los Angeles-based Mac user Chase Holden said the Adobe decisions to drop certain Mac products have been prudent reactions to business factors beyond Apple's control. He cited the FrameMaker boot as an example.

"Adobe made the logical decision" to try to shift FrameMaker users to the superior InDesign product, which does run on Mac, he said. "The (publishing software) software market is simply saturated," so Adobe didn't need two products in the same small space, he said.

Risky business?
It doesn't take many applications to fill the small market for Mac products, making the niche somewhat risky for third-party developers. Apple's response has been to get more involved in selling its own applications, launching products aimed at high-profile markets such as video production and digital photography.

"Adobe is more important to Apple than Apple is to Adobe right now," Adobe customer Dumas said. "That's a reversal of history." The Mac company is concerned that Adobe will abandon it as a platform, "so Apple has no choice but to begin developing Adobe-killer products," he said.

But to create applications that bump off outside products is a significant risk for Apple, said Roger Kay, an analyst with researcher IDC.

"If you alienate key developers like Adobe, there's a real question: 'Are you going to be able to support all the needs your users have?'" Kay said. "If Apple does a good job bringing everything under its own roof, they can make an argument they don't need partners...The question they have to ask then is are they ever going to need those partners again."

Apple's strategy of covering more and more Mac software bases has led it to load more items into the Mac OS--a type of "bundling" activity that has gotten rival Microsoft into repeated trouble with regulators. But Apple's tiny market share has insulated it from the same type of attention.

"Since Apple's not under scrutiny for being a monopoly, it can perpetrate behavior that's more egregious in that respect (bundling) than Microsoft can," Kay said. While Apple's behavior may be high-handed, there's little anyone can do, he said. "Your customers may be annoyed, your developer partners may be annoyed, but regulators certainly aren't going to do anything."

Jake Kemper, an Adobe customer and an Orlando, Fla.-based broadcast designer, agreed that Apple calls the shots.

"Apple has the power to pretty much monopolize any software they present to their users," he said. "They have their own conference, they have the hardware and full control over the OS. It didn't make sense for Adobe to compete (when Apple integrated products), as far as I can see. I really don't think Apple was going to jump up and give Adobe any help in integrating to the new OS."

But that control of the Mac software stack is a double-edged sword for Apple, Kemper contended. "What they have put out runs great on the Mac," he said, which is what you expect "when you control all the hardware and the OS." However, he warned, "It will catch up to them. Everyone likes choices...The best innovations come from competition."

Apple as stepchild
Even Apple loyalists may not be satisfied with every Mac software product, Mac user Janz said. Janz said he tried the applications bundled with the various models of Macs his family owns and found many of them to be "very weak cousins to their commercial, non-Apple counterparts."

Some blame outside software makers at least as much as Apple, however, for limiting software choice on the Mac. Max Wyss of Prodok Engineering, a Swiss technical publishing company, said Adobe's Mac products lately have waned in performance compared to their Windows counterparts. He believes Adobe is gradually withdrawing resources from OS X development in hopes of moving customers to Windows, because it's cheaper to support one platform.

"The situation with Mac support of Adobe software is getting worse almost every day," Wyss said. "Besides the complete cancellation of the mentioned products, practically every current Adobe product has performance issues compared to other platforms."

But another Mac user, Ralph Martin of Seattle architecture firm Burgess Weaver Design Group, said Adobe has been slow to adapt its products for OS X, and that's why Apple is selling competing products.

"A vast number of Apple users prefer the Apple software versions" of its video and photo production products, he said, "primarily because Adobe dragged their feet in developing any software for Mac OS X for such a long time." Instead of putting out Photoshop for OS X, Martin said, Adobe waited until its version for Windows XP was developed, so it could launch with Microsoft's delivery of XP. "Is Apple just supposed to wait and see" if Adobe will do a product? he asked.

Yet Photoshop remains a steady seller on the Mac, a cornerstone of a relationship that is likely to continue for many more years, analyst Tarter said, but not without continued turbulence.

"Apple has always been a somewhat erratic partner" for outside software makers, he said. Apple "goes through generation after generation of people who have zero memory of what worked and what offended people before. So the support for ISVs (independent software vendors) looks schizophrenic from year to year."

Tarter added, however, that anyone who partners with Apple is aware of this tendency. "Sometimes they come out and are incredibly supportive, and a year later they're out there trashing every ISV that gets in their way."