Adobe & Apple: Who Is Drifting Away From Whom?

If you had to pick a modern company whose name was synonymous with digital art, that company would be Adobe. From postscript fonts to PDF’s to industry workhorses like Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects, the history of Adobe products runs parallel in many ways to the history of computer graphics itself. It’s also a history intertwined with Apple and the rise of the Macintosh. Today, however, the close-knit relationship between the two companies has all but unraveled and in an ironic twist, cooperation between the companies seems to be at an all-time low at the very moment when Apple’s star is once again on the rise, but just who is abandoning whom?

Looking at a timeline of the last few years it becomes difficult to tell. In April of 2005, Adobe released their CS2 suite of creative products. Two months later, Apple drops a bombshell at the Worldwide Developers Conference by announcing that the Mac was switching from the PowerPC to Intel architecture. At that time, Apple releases a digital transition kit and tells developers that they need to create “Universal Binary” versions of their apps which will allow them to run on either architecture. Seven months go by and in February of 2006, Adobe announces that not only are they not ready for the transition but that it will be an additional 8 to 12 month wait before Universal Binary versions of their main applications are ready. This estimate proves optimistic and Creative Suite 3 doesn’t ship until April of 2007, almost 14 months later. Artists are forced to choose between two equally unsatisfying options, either they must wait for more than a year to upgrade their systems or they must run Adobe products through software emulation, reducing performance.

Mac OS Leopard would not be compatible with all Adobe products

By October of that same year, Apple had introduced Leopard, the latest version of the OS X operating system. Once again, Adobe is forced to admit that only parts of CS3, the software suite they released only 8 months prior would be compatible. Several apps including Acrobat 8, Premiere, After Effects Pro, Encore and Soundbooth would not be compatible until the next major release of the software. Owners of the previous CS2 suite were told “you may, therefore, experience a variety of installation, stability and reliability issues for which there is no resolution. Older versions of our creative software will not be updated to support Mac OS X Leopard”. Since Adobe would not update its previous suite of applications and could not fully update its current suite, artists were once again caught in the middle.

In September of 2008, a brand new set of applications, Adobe CS4 is released but not without some controversy. The Windows versions of Adobe’s apps could run in 64 bit mode while Mac versions were limited to 32 bits. The reason? Apple drops the 64 bit carbon framework Adobe needs to make it compatible. Given that only certain types of processor and RAM intensive apps can truly take advantage of running in 64 bit, there can be little doubt that Apple knew who would be affected by this decision. Instead, Apple announces that native 64 bit support will be a major component of its next operating system, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.  Adobe meanwhile has said that it will not have 64 bit versions of its apps ready for the debut of Snow Leopard later this year, but hopes to have them ready for inclusion in the next CS5 suite of applications, which as of now has no confirmed release date.

So what is going on here and who is to blame? The easy play is to demonize Adobe. Taken as a whole, the anecdotal evidence suggests a company whose interests and priorities are shifting. As a designer/animator myself, I must confess it’s hard not to feel a bit jilted by Adobe’s recent choices, including their new-found willingness to drop support for recent versions of their products and delay compatibility until the next upgrade cycle. For a company supposedly attuned to the needs of artists, their recent behavior is disappointing.

At the same time, Apple is far from blameless in this situation. Their culture of secrecy combined with their tendency to rapidly drop or shift technologies is not only frustrating to developers, but ultimately sews seeds of hesitancy and mistrust. How much of Adobe’s delays were caused either by a lack of  information from Apple or insufficient time to adapt to it? There is no way to know. I have long suspected that Apple’s intense focus on consumer devices has helped to divert their attention from the needs of their professional customers. Recent versions of Mac OS X have focused more on adding consumer-friendly features than they have on catering to the needs of creative professionals. Even their new batch of high-end hardware, while elegant and powerful, is not as groundbreaking as many would have it be and the line between Mac performance and that of less expensive Windows machines is too close for comfort.

It seems that these two companies are drifting apart but what was the catalyst for this change? Many think it was Apple’s release of Final Cut Pro and the direct threat it offered to Adobe’s own editing software Premiere. Others think it was simply a matter of shifting priorities as Apple’s market share dwindled and the majority of Adobe customers became Windows users. Was the lengthy delay in producing universal versions of Adobe’s apps a punitive measure against Apple? Was the reason it took so long because Apple didn’t offer the level of assistance it would have taken to move the project forward faster? Is Adobe drifting away from the Mac or is the Mac drifting away from Adobe?

I have an answer, and the answer is I DON’T CARE.

I don’t care who fired the first shot or who is retreating from whom. I don’t care about wounded pride or corporate intrigue. What I do care about is seeing Apple’s creative base remain healthy and vibrant.  I care about the continued existence and evolution of the tools I love to use. I care about seeing these two companies who are so central to both my art and my livelihood staying committed to each other and to the millions of users who rely on them both.

I fear sometimes that Apple’s tremendous success in consumer electronics has come at the cost of its core products. I also fear that without Adobe’s continued support, corporate bean-counters will finally have a justification to pry my beloved mac from my clenched fingers and do what they have been so longing to do, standardize on one platform.

So, because I don’t want to work in a world where my files are stored on the “Z drive” and my time is spent dodging viruses and re-installing drivers, here’s what I’d say to you both…

To Apple: You make my favorite operating system and beautiful hardware to run it on. That being said, beauty is no substitute for raw ability. There was a time when to be a computer artist meant using a Mac but today that’s no longer true. It’s not enough to keep pace with the rest of the industry. We need your best so we can do our best. Give us some of the innovation so readily on display with products like the iPhone. Astound the industry with new tools that make what we do easier, faster and better. Reach out to companies like Adobe that are central to the health and well-being of your customers and help support their efforts. Do not be so engrossed with creating mass-market consumer products that you forget about us. I guarantee we have not forgotten about you.

To Adobe: We know the Windows market is a larger one for you, but that doesn’t mean the Mac has lost its relevance. Apple is first and foremost, a company of ideas and vision. It’s that focus and not the weight of sheer numbers that helps to create the future. The Mac was the birthplace of Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects. Forget the miss-steps of the past and give your customers what they most desire, a vibrant collaboration between the two companies who matter most to us. The technological marriage between Apple and Adobe sparked a creative revolution. Working together, it could do so again.