Adobe and Apple: Allies and rivals through the ages

CTO Kevin Lynch leaving Adobe for Apple is just the latest example of how these companies remained tightly linked despite all their disagreements.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
6 min read
During a 2008 conference, Adobe's then-CTO Kevin Lynch announces Adobe's effort to bring Flash to smartphones.
During a 2008 conference, Adobe's then-CTO Kevin Lynch announces Adobe's effort to bring Flash to smartphones. Note the absence of any iPhones from the graphic. Stephen Shankland/CNET

When Adobe Systems revealed yesterday that Chief Technology Officer Kevin Lynch is leaving for Apple, it was only the latest example of an unusual combination of alliance and rivalry that has linked the Silicon Valley companies for decades.

Lynch, who came to Adobe via its acquisition of Macromedia in 2005, is notable for leading the company's battle against Apple to spread its Flash Player programming technology to Apple's iPhone and iPad. He lost that battle at Adobe, but evidently managed something more than a frosty detente with Apple.

Apple and Adobe have a long history of both agreement and opposition. They've been closely linked since the early days of desktop publishing, often with complementary product lines and common customers, but they've also often wrestled for the upper hand in their relationship.

Among the clearest contrasts in the shifting balance between the two companies are two similar moments nearly a decade apart.

In the first years of the new millennium, Apple gave Adobe programmers a trunkful of PowerBook laptops because Adobe had been such a helpful ally in supporting Apple's then-new OS X operating system, according to a source familiar with the gesture of gratitude.

But in 2010, in Steve Jobs' strongly worded "Thoughts on Flash" letter, the Apple CEO castigated Adobe for its Mac support. "Adobe has been painfully slow to adopt enhancements to Apple's platforms," Jobs said. "Adobe was the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X."

That's an oversimplification, of course. But it's emblematic of the tensions between two companies that each have helped shape and reshape computing over the decades. Here's a look at some of the up-and-down history between the two companies.

The Photoshop 1.0 splash screen
The Photoshop 1.0 splash screen. The software initially ran only on Macs. Computer History Museum

The desktop publishing years
Adobe's first product, PostScript, was a means of describing pages to be printed regardless of the software that generated the pages and the specific printer where the printing was to occur. Its flexibility helped open the door to desktop publishing -- especially when Apple chose to use it for its first LaserWriter printer and when Macintosh computers advanced computing with a graphical interface. Apple invested $2.5 million in Adobe in 1985, and Adobe helped make the Mac a real machine.

Adobe's Illustrator software arrived in 1987 as a close relation to the PostScript page-description language, opening up new possibilities for graphic designers. Adobe bought Photoshop in 1989 and brought it to market in 1990. It wasn't until version 2.5 arrived that there was even a Windows version. More acquisitions brought Aldus' Pagemaker and Frame Technology's Framemaker into Adobe's desktop-publishing fold, too, and Macs were the machines of choice for the "creative professionals" Adobe targeted.

But the companies broke ranks over an important PostScript feature, digital fonts. Adobe successfully commercialized these "vector" fonts, constructed mathematically so letters would appear as smooth curves rather than blocky bitmaps.

PostScript sold licenses to its own fonts constructed with this PostScript Type 1 format, and other font foundries followed suit, cementing the success of PostScript and PostScript fonts in the professional publishing industry.

But Apple undermined PostScript when it developed what became the rival TrueType font technology. It might have been a footnote in history -- except that Microsoft embraced TrueType in Windows just as that operating system began to take off. PostScript never caught on widely in the consumer market, even though Adobe liberalized the licensing terms, and the industry only has bridged the font divide with the broader OpenType format.

Premiere and Photoshop divisiveness
Another bout of fractiousness occurred over Premiere, the video-editing software Adobe first introduced in 1991. It competed with Macromedia's Final Cut, which Apple acquired in 1998. (Final Cut came from former Premiere leader Randy Ubillos, who at Apple went on to become instrumental in making iMovie.)

Final Cut Pro proved to be the stronger competitor, transforming the market for nonlinear video in a sequel to how desktop publishing expanded the market for print publishing to many more people.

Of course, Final Cut Pro was stronger than Adobe's Premiere Pro on Macs, but it wasn't available on Windows. In 2003, Adobe ditched Premiere Pro for Mac, making it a Windows-only product. For all Premiere's commercial failings, it was hardly a vote of confidence for Apple machines at a time when Windows PCs ruled the roost.

Macs didn't fade away, though, and after reworking Premiere, Adobe brought it back to the Mac in 2007 with the CS3 version. More recently, Adobe laid into Apple with aggressive marketing during a time when many video pros were unhappy with Apple's dramatic changes to Final Cut Pro X.

Carbon vs Cocoa
So Jobs wasn't entirely wrong to question Adobe's loyalty to the Mac. But when he said Adobe was "painfully slow to adopt enhancements to Apple's platforms," he was speaking only part of the truth.

Adobe's effort to get Flash on iOS devices culminated in a love-hate ad campaign targeting Apple.
Adobe's effort to get Flash on iOS devices culminated in a love-hate ad campaign targeting Apple. (Click to enlarge.) Adobe Systems

Adobe spent a huge amount of its Creative Suite 5 energy adapting Photoshop from OS X's older "Carbon" interface to the newer "Cocoa" alternative that was required for 64-bit support. Adobe had planned to do so at a more measured pace, but Apple abandoned a commitment to 64-bit Carbon software, forcing a hasty ground-up rewrite of the mammoth software.

Apple and Adobe also directly compete for high-end photo tools. Apple's Aperture arrived first as a tool to edit and catalog photos, especially those taken in the awkward but flexible "raw" formats that high-end cameras offer, but Lightroom arrived not long after.

Adobe initially priced Lightroom at $300, undercutting Apple's $500 Aperture. Apple eventually returned the favor, making Aperture $79 on its Mac App Store; Lightroom now is $149 and even dips down below $100 during promotions.

But some of these battles are becoming something of a sidelight, because Apple no longer is a company concentrating on creative professionals, as its long-dormant Mac Pro line illustrates. Instead, it's a consumer products powerhouse with the iPhone and iPad at the front and center of the business.

Thoughts on Flash
Perhaps the lowest point in the Adobe-Apple relationship came with Jobs' anti-Flash stance, which was instrumental in deflating the promise of Adobe's cross-platform programming technology, and especially his "Thoughts on Flash " open letter.

In it, Jobs said a once-tight partnership was over:

The two companies worked closely together to pioneer desktop publishing, and there were many good times. Since that golden era, the companies have grown apart. Apple went through its near-death experience, and Adobe was drawn to the corporate market with their Acrobat products. Today the two companies still work together to serve their joint creative customers -- Mac users buy around half of Adobe's Creative Suite products -- but beyond that there are few joint interests.

The letter was the climax of a long battle. Adobe in 2008 announced its plan to bring Flash to phones, a year after the first iPhone arrived. But Apple didn't merely ban Flash Player from the iPhone. It also tweaked developer requirements to bar a Flash-to-iOS workaround on the same day that Adobe started shipping that workaround in Flash Professional CS5. Adobe scrapped the project, then Apple scrapped the restriction, then Adobe resurrected the project so Flash programmers could move their apps to iOS.

Adobe's rhetoric started off with a light tone, exemplified by the comically bad Mythbusters take-off video of Lynch trying to force Flash onto an iPhone. As the battle went public, the campaign culminated in an ad campaign with a profoundly mixed message. "We love Apple," Adobe declared, while criticizing Apple for curtailing programmers' choices and limiting what people see on the Web.

But in the long run, Apple won. Adobe abandoned its effort to bring Flash to smartphones and tablets.

When it announced high-resolution Retina displays were coming to its MacBook line, Apple used Photoshop to show off the screen's advantages.
When it announced high-resolution Retina displays were coming to its MacBook line, Apple used Photoshop to show off the screen's advantages. James Martin/CNET

Eye to eye
Adobe arguably came around to Jobs' point of view. Indeed, it looks like there's a warming trend between Apple and Adobe right now:

  • Adobe is gradually de-emphasizing Flash in favor of Web programming technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3 that don't require its browser plug-in and that work on iOS.
  • It's signed up for to use Apple's Mac App Store for some products such as Lightroom. Yesterday, for example, Adobe announced two versions of its Premiere Elements 11 video-editing software being sold there, the $30 Quick Editor version and the $80 fuller-featured version.
  • When Apple had to show off its first high-resolution Retina displays on Macs in 2012, Photoshop was one of the packages that Apple promoted.

But perhaps the strongest statement is that Adobe is working on a full range of iOS apps, including the Photoshop Touch version of its best-known product. For all their differences, Apple and Adobe remain as tightly joined as ever.