May 13, 2010

Absolute Power vs. the Pirate Flag

Today Adobe ran a full-page ad in various newspapers articulating key company beliefs, and company founders John Warnock & Chuck Geschke–whose PostScript innovations were instrumental in the adoption of the Macintosh & desktop publishing–posted their thoughts on open markets & open competition:

Adobe’s business philosophy is based on a premise that, in an open market, the best products will win in the end — and the best way to compete is to create the best technology and innovate faster than your competitors.

I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own.

First, all these conversations tend to get framed in terms of Adobe Flash. That’s a mistake. Apple’s decision to deny customers the choice of whether to use Flash on iPads/iPhones is just one part of a bigger, more interesting question: What maximizes innovation & ultimate benefit to customers?

Let me note that I’ve loved Apple computers since before I could ride a bike. The introduction of the Mac was a life-changing part of my childhood, and in college I got waaay too into identifying with the company (during its darkest days). The pirate flag, “Think Different,” “Here’s to the crazy ones…”–it all spoke to me, and deeply.

I love making great Mac software, and after eight years product managing Photoshop, I’ve been asked to help lead the development of new Adobe applications, written from scratch for tablet computers. In many ways, the iPad is the computer I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Discovering how to draw a car on cocktail napkins at the Algonquin Hotel at age 3 is among my earliest memories, and I can tell you exactly what I drew on my Etch-A-Sketch Animator in 1986. I can’t wait to create & share tablet experiences with my young sons.

Put more simply, I want to build the most amazing iPad imaging apps the world has ever seen.

But will I be allowed to do so? And who decides?

Several years ago we decided to fundamentally rethink our approach to digital photography workflows. Lightroom (a Mac-first Cocoa app, let’s note) was born. Apple introduced Aperture around the same time, and I said “Welcome, Apple” (Seriously)–noting that competition makes us all better. Since that time, each team has pushed the other to innovate, making each one better. (Lightroom, for example, led on 64-bit, beating Aperture and all Apple pro apps to 64-bit by nearly two years.)

Apple refuses to carry Lightroom in Apple retail stores. That’s okay; Lightroom is doing just fine against Aperture, thank you. But what if the Apple store were the only store? How would Apple customers get the benefits of competition?

These aren’t idle questions. When the iPad was introduced, I asked what apps you’d like to see Adobe build for it. Among the 300 or so replies were many, many requests for a mobile version of Lightroom. I think that such an app could be brilliant, and many photographers tell me that its existence would motivate them to buy iPads.

Would Apple let Lightroom for iPad ship? It’s almost impossible to know. Sometimes they approve apps, then spontaneously remove them for “duplicat[ing] features that come with the iPhone.” Other times they allow competitors (apps for Netflix, Kindle, etc.), or enable some apps (e.g. Playboy) while removing similar ones. Maybe they’d let Lightroom ship for a while, but if it started pulling too far ahead of Aperture–well, lights out.

And let’s forget competition for a minute & talk innovation. We have some really interesting ideas for multitouch user interfaces–things you’ve almost certainly never seen previously. Of course, “groundbreaking” almost inherently means “inconsistent with what’s come before,” and Apple can reject an app if, say, it uses two-finger inputs in a new way. They do this to preserve consistency–until, of course, it’s time for them to deviate innovate. (Think Different, as long as you’re Apple.)

The effect on product development & innovation can be chilling. Yes, it’s easy to point to 200,000 apps on the App Store; it’s harder to note all those that aren’t there–serious apps that will be created only if developers know they’ll get a truly fair shot to innovate & compete. Anything else strengthens alternative platforms while undermining the Apple platform.

You shouldn’t care about this stuff because you love or hate Adobe*. You should care because these issues affect your choices as a customer & a creative person.

Will my decision to speak publicly about these concerns harm our ability to deliver iPad apps? I don’t know; that’s up to Apple. But can you imagine a world where, say, constructively criticizing Microsoft could destroy your ability to ship a Windows application? It’s almost unthinkable, and yet that’s the position in which Apple’s App Store puts us.

To borrow from the Think Different campaign, “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them.” That’s what I ask for Adobe technologies: let them succeed or fail based on their own merits, as determined by customers.

* None of this is specific to Adobe in the least. Just yesterday, the organizer of Mac indie developer conference C4, Jonathan Rentzsch, announced the cancellation of the conference, saying that “[iPhone SDK] Section 3.3.1 has broken my spirit.”

8:48 AM | Permalink | Comments [247]
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