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Friday, May 14, 2010, 12:00 pm PT (03:00 pm ET)

Adobe-Apple war on Flash reminiscent of PostScript struggle

Three years of mounting tensions between Apple and Adobe Systems over the availability of Flash on devices running the iPhone OS have exploded into a battle of scathing attacks in both directions. Adobe is now advertising its "love" for Apple, despite enumerating the company's sins that it hates.

The character of the attacks in today's Flash Wars seems extraordinary, but is certainly not unprecedented, as sources familiar with the events from two decades ago remind us. That's because this latest skirmish isn't the first time Apple has sent Adobe into wildly frothy hysterics due to a perceived jilting.

This All Happened Before

Back in the late 80s, Adobe had a very different software monopoly in place. Rather than controlling the platform for creating and delivering dynamic content on the web with Flash, Adobe was sitting upon PostScript, a platform for creating and delivering digital content via print.

PostScript was Adobe's original product, taken from Xerox PARC's hotbed of innovation and commercialized by company founders John Warnock and Charles Geschke. Three years after launching Adobe, Steve Jobs created a partnership with the company that licensed its PostScript page description technology to drive Apple's new LaserWriter, with Apple also investing $2.5 million in Adobe for a 15% stake in the company.

Paul Brainerd started a third company to pioneer this emerging desktop publishing market; it was named Aldus and its flagship product was PageMaker, running on Apple's Macs and using PostScript to create high resolution print output via the LaserWriter. Apple actually announced the LaserWriter on the same day Aldus unveiled PageMaker. Together, Apple, Aldus and Adobe created the emerging market for desktop publishing.

As a middleware platform, Adobe's PostScript became so essential to desktop publishing and the Mac that Adobe could charge pretty much whatever it wanted for the software and the "Type 1" fonts it used. In 1989, Apple's replacement for Jobs, Jean-Louis Gassée, approached Adobe seeking a cheaper version of PostScript for use on Apple's new low-priced Macs then in the product pipeline. Adobe refused. This prompted Apple to seek market-based solution to Adobe's greed: it began to investigate alternatives to PostScript.

Microsoft had acquired TrueImage, a PostScript clone that could replace Adobe's language in laser printers. Apple itself had developed an operating system font scaling technology it called TrueType, for drawing smooth fonts on the screen that could be rendered at high resolution on a printer. The two companies agreed to cross license their technologies to make both widely available across the Mac and Windows platforms, erasing any need for anyone to keep paying for Adobe's overpriced PostScript software and the Type 1 fonts it required.

Adobe's scorn, vilification and trash talking from 20 years ago

At the Seybold Desktop Publishing Conference in San Francisco on September 20, 1989, Apple and Microsoft jointly presented their new TrueType partnership. Adobe's Warnock was enraged. He publicly castigated Apple and Microsoft, saying, "That's the biggest bunch of garbage and mumbo jumbo," and speaking on the verge of tears, he emphatically added, "What those people are selling you is snake oil!"

The TrueType announcement seemed to eviscerate Adobe's future prospects. Apple dumped its holdings in Adobe as the company's stock price plummeted. Apple still ended up profiting $79 million on its original investment in Adobe, according to Jim Carlton's book "Apple: The Inside Story of Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders."

Following the fallout between Apple and Adobe, Adobe rushed its new Adobe Type Manager to market to enable its Type 1 PostScript fonts to be used on the Mac desktop just like TrueType fonts. Adobe also eased up on its prices and negotiated with Apple new terms to keep PostScript on its LaserWriters. In the PC world, TrueType and PostScript-clone printers became more popular, despite being problematic, because they were cheaper. Apple's continued exclusive licensing of Adobe's PostScript for its LaserWriters eventually helped drive Apple out of the printer business as cheaper alternatives became available. Adobe's lock on desktop publishing with PostScript had been broken.

Adobe branches out into apps

Despite continuing to do most of its business with Apple, Adobe strengthened its position with Windows to hedge its bets in application software. It also began making efforts to build a portfolio of creative apps to join its own Illustrator drawing tool. It first eyed Aldus, which not only sold the popular PageMaker, but also sold a competitor to Adobe's Illustrator named FreeHand.

Adobe had earlier "unwittingly given a nearly free and unlimited PostScript license" to FreeHand, according to an early Aldus employee familiar with the events. Aldus FreeHand was now trouncing Adobe's Illustrator, so Adobe planned to buy Aldus in 1994 and simply erase its competitor in the market for professional drawing applications.

The problem, as Adobe later discovered, was that FreeHand wasn't actually owned by Aldus; Altsys, its developer, only sold the title through Aldus, so the deal couldn't take FreeHand off the market, much to Adobe's chagrin. FreeHand's developer subsequently sold itself to Macromedia in 1995, which became Adobe's primary competitor in digital creative apps over the next decade. Adobe wouldn't subsequently take FreeHand off the market until 2005, when it purchased Macromedia. That $3.4 billion deal also gave Adobe more than just creative apps: it gave it a new PostScript-like platform: Flash.

Incidentally, a reader adds: "freefreehand.org has been setup to recruit members and raise funds to try to convince Adobe through legal means to divest itself of FreeHand, which they are trying to let die a slow death. Fortunately this skirmish with Apple has helped shed a tad of light on how hypocritical Adobe is regarding 'healthy competition' and all the other drivel they are spouting regarding Apple spurning Flash."

Graphical History of Apple and Adobe


On page 2 of 3: Flash takes over the web, Apple's changing stance on Flash.