This morning, Adobe announced that it is discontinuing development of its Flash Player for mobile platforms: a concession from the owner that the technology does not fit into the future of computing.
People are calling this a victory for Apple, for “open standards”, for “users”, but more than anything it is a victory for Adobe. A belated one, to be sure — perhaps too overdue to even call it a victory — but the company will unquestionably benefit from forgetting the past.
It’s easy to forget that Adobe did not create Flash: it bought it along with Macromedia more than six years ago. Among the other products that came with that acquisition, Fireworks and Dreamweaver have been fairly well-integrated into the Adobe suite. A notable characteristic of those products is that they are tools, just as Photoshop and Illustrator, Adobe’s traditional flagship products, are tools.
Flash is a tool as well, but it is also a platform: a runtime that obscures the browser and operating system in order to give Adobe more control. It is the platform part that has made this saga so unpleasant over the years. Adobe has never been a platform company, yet it felt a need to power forward with Flash. I’m sure that early on there was a serious vision of dominating content delivery over the web, but sometime after 2005 — just as HTML5 technologies were emerging, and ironically right around the time of the Macromedia acquisition — it became a burden. Between the money it paid and the money it had since spent, Adobe’s management seemed unable to just let go. MBAs often call this “escalation of commitment”. It’s now 2011, and only the delusional can pretend that things haven’t changed. After today, everyone at Adobe can exhale and right the ship.
Adobe’s announcement clearly states that only Flash Player for mobile is going away. The tools — the things that Adobe’s customers really turn to Adobe for — can now grow freely to please creatives in new, forward-looking ways.
I truly believe that a long-term Quixotic commitment to Flash Player would have destroyed Adobe from within. It was an expired product that distracted the company from its core competency of making tools for creative professionals. Adobe still has a lot of work to do if it wants to be a real leader in modern web technology, but this is the right first step.
This post had been a work in progress for quite some time. The unpublished draft was much longer, and had the working title ‘Adobe’s Dilemma’. It’s been repurposed and finally published in light of today’s announcement. I like this version a lot more.