2010-05-18

Head kept in a dark place.

In a recent interview Mr Chuck Geschke, co-chairman of Adobe, suggested that Adobe Photoshop and Acrobat Reader were not subpar apps.   I'll quote the question and his response for accuracy:
JP: Cross-platform mobile apps tend not to take advantage of native features unique to each device. What do you have to say about complaints that write-once-run-anywhere software results in subpar apps?
CG: Well, people don’t say that about Photoshop. They certainly don’t say it about Acrobat….I’m a little confused about what the real examples of that are. If there’s a problem with the performance of Flash as demonstrated on the iPhone, it’s because we haven’t been able to access the inner layers of hardware and software we need to to provide the kind of performance we can provide on other platforms. But that’s Apple’s choice, not ours. And now, of course, you can’t use it at all.
Technically, I would have to say that he is partially right about Adobe Photoshop.  Since there is very little real competition to Photoshop their product more or less defines the category.  Photoshop is the benchmark to which every contender is compared and thus defines what is par for the course.

That being said, not that much has happened with regard to usability.  For some mysterious reason, oft-used features are still hidden several clicks away in a rather arcane UI and Photoshop still feels very heavy, sluggish.  You can do that when you have no competition, and while Adobe hasn't been quite as bad as Microsoft were with Internet Explorer, leading to almost a decade of stagnation on the web, they haven't been doing a great job.

When it comes to Adobe Acrobat Mr Geschke's response is quite interesting.  Does he really think that users like Adobe Acrobat?  How can it have escaped him that in the past decade Acrobat has become the poster-app for bloated, unnecessarily complex, and slow software with an awkward UI?  A dubious honor previously held by such contemptible pieces of software as the RealPlayer.

The most charitable explanation is that Mr. Geschke is clueless.

I'll leave the less charitable explanations as an exercise to the reader.  In any case Mr Geschke would do well to make use of the PDF viewer built into MacOS X' Preview application.  Adobe Acrobat is like an annoying supporting actor in a play -- behaving like its name is at the top of the poster and thus expecting everyone to be accepting of rude, obnoxious, primadonna behavior.  A PDF viewer is a supporting actor and the dangerously obese primadonna that is Acrobat isn't worth the time.

As a software developer I get the impression that Adobe's developers are pushed to deliver features rather than improving the quality of the products.  In particular in their older applications.  If you know anything at all about developing software, you'll know that software that is actively being developed over time, and by a changing group of people,  accumulates defects.  More importantly, over time the premises change.  Operating systems change, the kind of features expected by the users change, even the way we solve problems in software changes.  This means that software architecture, and microarchitecture, that looked reasonable a few years ago may be outdated today.  For a developer this means that over time the cost of adding new features becomes higher.  Each passing year it becomes harder and harder to work with the code -- until you reach the point where your developers will have a hard time motivating themselves to get out of bed at all in the morning;  knowing that their day will be an uphill battle with ever more fragile and inelegant software.

As for Flash, I for one will not be sorry to see it go.  Flash is a technology that has stunted the growth of the web as a usable information platform for far too long.  A distraction from doing things properly.  An instant gratification solution to provide snazzy visuals at the expense of function and utility.  At the expense of being able to keep content more malleable, readable and useful.

While I abhor the draconian terms imposed unto developers by Steve Jobs, I'd be willing to look the other way if it rids us of Flash.  If you are infected with leprosy and someone comes up with a cure that can rid you of the disease at the cost of a few weeks of nausea, you would probably be inclined to tolerate that -- addressing the nausea once the more more threatening condition has been taken out of the equation.  Of the two evils, a Flash-infested web, or Steve Jobs screwing over developers for his products, the latter is definitively the lesser since the former affects everyone whether they want to or not.

And Mr. Geschke,  it would behoove you to try to be more in touch with reality.  I cannot imagine that your duty towards Adobe shareholders is well served by you sputtering obvious nonsense in the press.  It reflects badly on your company.

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