Adobe’s Opportunity

images-1 A few days ago, I outlined the different ways design can be infused into a product development process and asserted that the iPhone is the most drastic example of aligning your entire business around a sound design. Furthering the theme, Business Week has an interesting article that makes a similar assertion: CEOs Must Be Designers, Not Just Hire Them. Think Steve Jobs And iPhone.

I’m still scratching my head in amazement wondering how technology behemoths like Nokia and Samsung could let Apple, a mobile phone non-player, step into their space and in a single moment, instantly put them two years behind.

What were the management meetings like in Nokia, Motorola and Samsung last week?

Of course, this isn’t just about design. It’s about alignment around design. The only way to realistically make this kind of leap is to put out a reference design that seems relatively impossible…and then go figure out how you’re gonna pull it off.

Diving slightly deeper, the iPhone is an incredible example of software and hardware synergy. The software team wasn’t working against some pre-defined API. When that hardware got delivered to them it was custom-tailored to exactly what the design demanded. I firmly believe that this is why the product feels so revolutionary by today’s standards. This is also why Macbooks and Macs feel so much more “together” than Windows-powered PC’s and laptops. Apple has to work against three or four reference designs. Microsoft has to accomodate tens of thousands of distinct pieces of hardware and millions of combinations.

So how can the other guys catch up or even surpass what Apple has pulled off? Well, it’s clear they need to not rely on pre-packaged tools or components that are far from revolutionary and then just piece them together. Software from vendor X and hardware component from vendor Y is not going to win in this game. Instead, they need to do what Apple did…unless someone can come up with a wickedly powerful software and hardware platform that people can build on. Something that can compete with the power and fluidity of the iPhone experience.

Enter Adobe

The big guys need help. They need a platform that can enable the next generation of mobile devices deliver a far richer experience than available today. They need a platform that can leverage the work that’s already been done and knowledge that is already invested. The platform also needs to be really lightweight without compromising power. The big guys need Flash.

Adobe’s strategy around Flash, Flex and AIR isn’t just about widgets on your desktop (at least I hope it isn’t). It’s about finally decoupling from the browser and breaking out to just about anywhere. A single platform that delivers a rich user experience across platforms and devices. By abstracting away dealing with the hardware, a massive population of designers and developers can be leveraged.

PBS’ Robert Cringely shares this sentiment in a write-up from a week ago:

Flash is well understood, and the development environment is highly evolved and therefore efficient. There are many experienced Flash designers, so the pool of available talent is potentially much larger. GUI design can be done by people who don’t require intimately specialized knowledge of the underlying hardware. GUI elements would be portable across device models and even device categories. Think how the right-facing triangle of the “Play” button started on tape recorders, moved to VCRs, and is now on CD players, DVD players, DVRs, iPods, and any hardware or software that records or plays back content.

GUIs would evolve much more quickly and cost less to create. There could be standard interface libraries for all types of uses, and the similar GUIs would lower the learning curve for users. Talented interface designers would be in demand. User interfaces would be potentially upgradeable. More interesting, GUIs could be user-specific: the same cell phone might have a “Grandma interface” for one user, but a very different GUI for teens. And there’s no reason why that should stop with cell phones.

So there does appear to be hope for the “other guys.” It’ll be fun to see how aggressively Adobe goes after the mobile platform market. Flash Lite is pretty good, but the Holy Grail is Flash 8 or 9 running on something really small and powerful. They’re probably still going to need to partner with (or buy) someone on the hardware end. Hell, if Apple can have that kind of influence, why not Adobe?

Adobe is just now reaching the desktop beachhead with AIR and Flex. There’s still a lot of headway to make there. But the desktop/mobile dichotomy is officially dead thanks to Apple. Those widgets and mini-apps that look so nice on your desktop would fit beautifully on a little screen in your pocket. Imagine visiting a web page and having the options “Drop On Your Desktop” and “Drop On Your Mobile” available. One code base, many destinations.

As for me personally, I’ve come to terms with the fact that just communicating with Sprint seems to renew my contract. So I just gawk at the iPhone from afar and just keep…ahem…”surfing” on my Treo.

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