These are difficult times for developing Internet publishing strategies.
Major technology-publishing venues like CNET and Ziff Davis Media are rumored
to be on their way to filing for bankruptcy. Key3Media, a producer of leading
technology conferences such as COMDEX, NetWorld+Interop, and Seybold Seminars,
announced in September a large scaling-back of its shows, citing a "sustained
economic downturn being experienced in the information technology, networking,
and trade show industries." Of specific importance to the Internet publishing
world is the canceling of Seybold New York 2003. There will now be only
one Seybold conference, held annually on the West Coast (where Key3Media
is going to base its operations). This development got me wondering about
Adobe. Seybold and Adobe became intertwined over the years, particularly
at Seybold Seminars Boston 2000, when Adobe unveiled its Network Publishing
strategy as basically the ticket to the publishing promised land. ("Publish
anything, anywhere, on any device.")
Network Publishing was and is a compelling strategy, even if people
had to use their imaginations to grasp it. Authoring once and then seamlessly
publishing to many platforms would be ideal, but could we get there from
here? Could Adobe, a company known for its financial ups and downs, possibly
lead us there? Would it be able to marshal its product line for the task?
Would it be able to expand its market outside of its traditional user base
and into other sectors?
To do this, Adobe, which isn't known for its user-friendly software
interfaces (can you say Photoshop?), would have to offer products that
are liquid, transparent, and compelling enough to woo customers who are
already devoted to such interfaces as Macromedia's Dreamweaver or Microsoft
Word. And there were some unique issues, such as trying to sell Acrobat
to those who think they already own it if they have the Acrobat Reader.
Oh, and let's not forget that Microsoft had rolled out its Microsoft Reader,
which some believed would roll over Acrobat PDF.
So this was a brave strategy in a technology world that was quickly
losing its luster. While the ideal world still has not yet arrived, Adobe
and its Network Publishing keep moving along, although not without a few
Adobe did however succeed in moving Acrobat to a more central stage
in the overall corporate plan. Acrobat has grown in importance in the company's
revenue stream, representing $300 million in sales last year, or 25 percent
of Adobe's total revenues. And in August The Chronicle of Higher Education
reported that among software sales at college bookstores, Adobe Acrobat
5.0 ranked third, behind Microsoft's Office XP and Windows XP. Acrobat
had been rated second in July. Adobe's other major product, Photoshop,
was ranked fifth in July and seventh in August. So for the moment it seems
like Adobe's light still burns bright in comparison to the darkness covering
much of the technology industry.
20 and Counting
Adobe, founded 20 years ago, is one of the oldest software companies
in the world. It's primarily known for its incredibly powerful software
that's used by professional artists and publishers. Its devoted and loyal
following (many of whom are also loyal Macintosh supporters) has allowed
Adobe to survive despite a few bumps and bruises along the way.
But making the transition to a more mainstream marketplace poses its
own special challenges. Adobe's incredibly powerful software is also incredibly
dense and difficult to learn. The company made its name on Photoshop, an
image-editing program that captured the professional market years ago.
Photoshop has reigned supreme ever since, despite its steep learning curve
and price (more than $500 for version 7.0). The program's name is also
now used as a verb, as in "I'll just photoshop my ex-boyfriend out and
put Brad Pitt in." But now Adobe must balance keeping its party faithful
happywhile still honing the product line and its company strategy for less
sophisticated users. It has taken some time to get the formula right.
For example, Photoshop LE, Adobe's first consumer version of Photoshop,
was commercially released in 1999. Adobe kept pretty much the same interface
and just dropped features. Then the company came out with Photoshop Elements
1.0, which CNET called "Photoshop Very Light." Next came Photoshop Elements
2.0, which was released this summer. CNET thought this product was still
"too complex for most hobbyists" but did say that it came closer to the
mainstream mark. One must question how well Adobe will do with bringing
other products to a more mainstream market if it's facing such challenges
with its flagship product.
Will Adobe do better with FrameMaker and InDesign, both of which are
prominently placed in the Network Publishing strategy? FrameMaker 7.0 was
released this May. Karl Matthews, who led Adobe's FrameMaker team, said
in an interview with The Mercury News that the company wants to be part
of the enterprise's "knowledge worker." Matthews' vision is for "human
resources workers to create policy documents in FrameMaker, for engineers
to use it to write up specifications, and for bureaucrats to use it to
organize tax law." Hmmm. This could take some convincing.
Getting people to change their software behavior is becoming more difficult
these days. Corporations that face tough financial times are known to batten
down the hatches and suspend software changes because of the additional
support and training needs. Companies that were once tolerant of a 6 or
7 year return on investment for technology acquisitions are looking for
much shorter horizons.
More importantly, Adobe has not yet been able to switch consumers' alliances
from key competitor products to its own line. QuarkXPress users are not
migrating en masse to Adobe InDesign and seem as fiercely devoted to Quark
as Adobe's faithful are to its products. GoLive, Adobe's Web-authoring
software, has not won over Macromedia's Dreamweaver customers. Nor are
Microsoft's FrontPage users leaving their familiar Windows interface in
droves either. And these users are probably more in line with the mainstream
markets Adobe hopes to reach. But in order to move into its next round
of Network Publishing, Adobe will need to expand the corporate embrace
of other parts of its product line. These are some of the most likely channels.
Adobe is still churning out other products that are needed to make the
Network Publishing vision a reality. In September, the company re-branded
the "Adobe Studio" section of its Web site to make it more appealing to
designers and to correspond to the Network Publishing strategy. Adobe has
been actively releasing Readers for key devices that are also part of the
vision. These Readers support Palm and Pocket PC handhelds, as well as
Symbian OS, a new software application that allows users to view PDF files
on data-enabled mobile phones. Adobe also released Adobe Graphics Server
2.0, the company's newest version of its graphics and imaging server software
(formerly known as Adobe AlterCast), which is aimed at reducing backroom
operations for creating and updating images by automating image-production
Selling Acrobat to college students is not going to make Network Publishing
happen by itself. Acrobat is perhaps the easiest part of the equation that
Adobe has to contend with if "networked publishing" is going to be a reality.
Although it's better off than many technology companies, Adobe has had
to revise its revenue forecasts in part because of reduced sales of its
more mature software products that serve the publishing industry. But given
that Adobe could turn out to be one of the last technology companies left
standing (and with visions in short supply), where it goes might still
be an indicator of where Internet publishing will also go.
Robin Peek is associate professor at the Graduate School of Library
and Information Science at Simmons College. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.