Adobe CEO dances around Flash's declining importance

While Flash isn't the largest part of Adobe's business, it's of great interest to tech leaders. Adobe's Shantanu Narayen gets us thinking about how the company will maintain its leadership here.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read
Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen talks today with D9 conference host Walt Mossberg. Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

PALOS VERDES, Calif.--"We produce the world's content," Adobe's Shantanu Narayen said today when D9 conference host Walt Mossberg asked him, "What's up with Flash?"

"Flash is really a small part of the company," Narayen said, offering no comfort to the world of Flash developers. Referring to the dust-up with Apple over Flash on the iPad, he added, "it's clear that it's not a technology issue...We allow people to author once," and publish anywhere. "It's a business model issue," he continued. "It's all about control of the applications you can run on the platform."

Mossberg disagreed that Flash is up to speed technologically, "I have yet to see a tablet where Flash works really well." He was referring specifically to Android tablets.

And the future of Flash in a world of HTML5? "We're actively contributing" to the development of HTML5. "Where Adobe actually makes its money is the development of tools," Narayen said. HTML5 is still in the early days and the standards development is not as clean as some believe, he said. "You're starting to see fissures," he said, especially in video standards. "And where there are no standards, we invent standards." Narayen was referring to Postscript, the page-definition protocol Adobe created that help kick off the desktop publishing market.

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Mossberg asked about the future of the PDF format, in light of a previous demo of the textbook publishing start-up Inkling. "Tablets are a new medium," Narayen said. "What publishers are doing today are saying, 'how do I start off with my PDF,' because that's the raw material."

My take: Narayen's answers to Mossberg on the challenges facing Adobe's Flash and PDF standards were not convincing. While Adobe may continue to make good money from tools for creating content, one does not get the impression that the company is fully behind modern content publishing standards. It does not appear to be leading in the development of new formats.

"We invent standards," as needed, Narayen said, which showed a flash of arrogance and leadership--the kind of leadership that is sometimes necessary as new media platforms emerge.

But at the same time, Adobe appears to be milking its old standards as much as it can. It rather has to, since they're still in wide use and still generate revenues for the company. Managing a transition to new media, for a media tools company, is a dangerous dance, and it's not clear how Narayen's Adobe will continue to lead as the old band leaves and a new one takes the stage.