Microbe Inc.

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Apparently, Microsoft and Adobe are contemplating a merger because of Apple’s “control” of the phone market. You know, that market they have minuscule (and shrinking) share of.

It’s very reasonable for these two struggling companies to fear a company with a track record of accumulating and abusing monopoly power to stifle competition.

Actually, it’s a little funny to consider that Adobe might manage to borg with Microsoft and produce an even more messed up company. Having acquired Macromedia with the express intention of shoehorning the loathsome Acrobat plugin into Flash (we’d all be suffering from this now if Adobe weren’t suddenly interested in making Flash not seem to be a streaming pile of bloated crap for some reason), Adobe is currently looking at being reduced to “the company that makes Photoshop and After Effects”.

Let’s take a look at the trail of tears that has gotten us here.

Once upon a time there were some small, pretty neat software companies that only produced Mac software. Adobe produced Photoshop and Illustrator. Aldus produced Pagemaker, Freehand, and Fontographer (the latter two actually licensed from a small outfit named Altsys). Macromind produced Director. Authorware produced Authorware. And Paracomp produced Swivel 3D and Modelshop.

Macromind merged with Authorware to become Macromedia and went cross-platform. Then it absorbed Paracomp and ran its entire product line into the ground, then produced a bunch of increasingly ambitious and dysfunctional successors, eventually giving up. Futuresplash Animator came out and Macromedia bought it and turned it into Flash. It simultaneously figured out how to get Director apps to run inside a browser plugin (rather well) and compile to Java applets (rather badly). Director’s plugin was called “Shockwave” and Flash’s was called “Shockwave Flash” (to give you an idea of which product they initially thought was more important). Macromedia also tried to compete with Photoshop by buying a program called X-Res, ran that into the ground, and then adapted it as a web graphics tool called Fireworks. And they produced a pretty decent WYSIWYG html editor called Dreamweaver.

Meanwhile, Adobe got a foothold in the digital video market by creating Premiere (I believe it started as the support software for VideoSpigot, but I can’t find confirmation online), and then consolidated its position by producing After Effects, but struggled to break into desktop publishing (against Quark — although it did establish Acrobat as a portable document standard by the clever method of implementing it as a virtual postscript printing service), the web (against Dreamweaver), and 3d (but then Paracomp had been destroyed by Macromedia and the Mac 3d market would never really recover — I won’t talk about Strata as this post is getting long enough). Adobe’s Pagemill and Sitemill were basically awful, so it looked around for someone to buy and found Golive, which was in some ways nicer than Dreamweaver, but kind of strange and German. To handle DTP Adobe simply bought Aldus for Pagemaker (and a bunch of half-assed Photoshop plugins that remain segregated illogically in their own menus in CS5 with no significant improvement more than ten years later). Adobe had to get rid of Freehand because it would give them a monopoly in the vector art market, so it handed off Altsys to Macromedia, which proceeded to run both products into the ground. Fontographer got sold and we only just got a native OS X version a week or so back.

Adobe proceeded to run Pagemaker and Golive into the ground while working on a half-assed Flash killer called Livemotion and some kind of VR tool called Air (not to be confused with AIR) which was eventually canned while still in beta. Adobe did, however, take advantage of Quark’s complacency by managing to iterate InDesign until it actually became a viable competitor. (Somewhere here I should mention that Adobe bought Framemaker and ran it into the ground as well.)

Having failed, spectacularly, to compete in the web authoring (Flash or HTML) market, and noticing that many people preferred to chew their own hands off rather than use the Acrobat web browser plugin, Adobe merged with Macromedia. It looked pretty bleak from the outset, with Adobe murmuring about merging Flash and Acrobat (thus far Acrobat has absorbed Flash but not vice versa, thank goodness, so Acrobat has simply been made even more horrible) and neglecting to even mention what was going to happen to Director (at the time still a wildly successful product despite having received virtually no useful development for years). By the time Adobe released a new (incredibly bad) version of Director, it was pretty much a dead product. Adobe killed off Freehand which by that time was really only being treated as a bundle goody by Macromedia. Even so, Freehand was hugely preferred by many artists, and had been far more innovative than Illustrator (e.g. introducing booleans first, actually trying to be usable, and supporting translucency, something which Illustrator still doesn’t do well).

As a side-note, some time in the late 90s, Macromedia made a bid to compete with Adobe in the video production space (i.e. Premiere and After Effects) but ended up selling the team (including Randy Ubillos, the Premier guy) and its product to Apple, where it became Final Cut Pro.

So here we are. Adobe is the result of what is probably the most destructive series of software company mergers the world has seen (with Symantec a distant second). Many excellent, and in some cases market dominant, products have fallen by the wayside, leaving consumers with less choice and higher prices.

Better merge to stop that evil Apple from strangling us all with its phone monopoly. Bastards.