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Streams of Thought: Altering Course—The Adobe Warship Begins to Turn

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At the risk of sounding like an Adobe shill, something interesting is happening at The Company Formerly Known as Photoshop.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve done market and strategic analysis for quite a few companies in the digital media space, and I’ve covered many more as part of my article-writing addiction. Strategy work isn’t for those who want instant gratification: Normally, the results aren't seen for several months, even in a small company. For a large company, strategic shifts can take many, many years.

So when a company shows signs of shifting course, I often plot a "what if?" path and look to the horizon to see if the course will hold bearing. And seldom have I seen a large company making as nimble a turn as Adobe has in the last 7 months as it has moved into uncharted waters of offering continent-sized services.

While the latest turn may appear to be a spur-of-the moment tack, it’s actually the result of a strategic change in course. As with large ships, major corporate shifts in course require significant planning—and often also require a captain with renewed vision at the wheel. Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen assumed that role in 2000 and, like many corporate pilots, had to weather the joint hurricanes of 9/11 and the dot-com bubble, both of which wreaked devastation on the global enterprise business market Adobe was then chasing.

"A lot of companies got caught in the dot-com bubble," said Chizen in a 2004 interview. "By the time it burst, we had already refocused our business . . . We decided to concentrate on creative professionals and people who really cared about the quality of the information they communicated. We also decided to focus on document workflows and to streamline the company."

After a captain comes aboard and charts a new course, command transfers to action, moving from the wheel to the rudder in various maneuvers. What’s not seen externally, at least until the ship begins to turn, is the effort required to move the rudder in the first place. Often there’s little external evidence until all the machinery begins to move in unison, and then only a few ripples may appear until the rudder really begins to swing and the wake begins, in hindsight, to churn.

Adobe’s document workflow strategy in 2004–2005 centered on Acrobat, which led several observers—myself included—to criticize Chizen’s decisions to lessen the role of video and limit Premiere to the corporate video market. From today’s vantage point, the move was, at worst, a slight tack too far that has long since been corrected.

I noticed a few ripples around the rudder when Adobe began adding large and small vessels to its fleet, most notably Macromedia and Serious Magic. But any number of watercraft will rock in the wake of the company’s move toward services—some of which could bring it into direct competition with those very "creative professionals" that Chizen mentioned in the earlier interview.

As the second largest software company in the world—behind Microsoft—Adobe could have easily chosen to maintain its initial course centered on Creative Suite 3. Yet the company has plotted a trajectory further across the map into a territory once labeled "Here There Be Dragons" on most software company maps. Adobe has altered its course in search of a new hybrid services-products model or a technology platform that seamlessly integrates local and far-flung resources.

During pre-CS3-release training at Adobe back in May and then again at Adobe MAX 2007 in October, Adobe provided a few channel markers on the new course it hopes its partners and customers will follow.

In addition to Adobe Media Player (AMP), which is to be released in early 2008 and which still poses unanswered questions about privacy and viewing aggregation that could torpedo the project (just think of AMP as RealPlayer redux and several issues come to mine, er, mind), the company is focused on bringing tools to the web. Premiere and Photoshop have, or will soon have, limited online versions. And Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) allows Flash ActionScript and Flex files to run on cross-platform desktops as easily as they run on the web.

Flash has been integrated into Acrobat to streamline the review process. H.264 and AAC have been added for customers like the BBC, who will use the codecs to stream via Adobe’s in-house CDN or a partner CDN . . . and the list goes on.

And on. Everywhere you look, Adobe shows signs of turning into a relatively successful hybrid company that uses the web and the desktop as equal platforms. Is there choppy water ahead? Certainly. But the course has been altered, and the hand revealed, so keep an eye out as Adobe lofts into uncharted waters.

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