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From the "Holy Crap!" Department: Adobe Acquires Macromedia

At first, I thought it must have been some kind of a joke, but it seems to be true: Adobe and Macromedia have agreed to a friendly takeover, at a price of about $3.4B. So the question is, does this save Adobe or destroy Macromedia? And is there any conceivable way that merging two 800 pound gorillas could be good for web developers or end users?

Macromedia and Adobe have presented as competitors for years, but they actually compete head to head in very few areas. Even places where they seem to butt up against one another, as in the case of ImageReady versus Fireworks, or FlashPaper versus PDF, the truth is more complex: In the first case, most design shops just buy their people one of each, and in the second, the formats, while presented as directly competetive, really aren't. PDF is almost zealously print-centric; FlashPaper is really an effort to make Flash more print-friendly, and in fact ends up incorporating PDF into its own standards stack. Both have more usability warts than most people on either side like to admit.

It's hard to see how this helps consumers. Adobe have become enormously complacent in recent years. They're effectively the only game in town for professional image editing, and they know it. In the graphics professions, the price of a copy of Creative Suite is simply a part of the cost of setting up a new designer graphic artist. Even heavily Macromedia-focused web shops use Adobe software at some stage in their workflow, thanks to Adobe's strong lock on certain color technologies. But they've never bothered to develop anything like Flash, and have never worked very hard to overcome the profound weaknesses of PDF as a format.

Macromedia are somewhat hungrier, somewhat more innovative -- but they, too, have a market lock. Professional web design shops either work with Macromedia StudioMX (or possibly just Dreamweaver), or they most likely do inferior work. I know of a few good web designers who stick with Creative Suite for everything, but they're old pros with lots of experience dealing with Adobe's deeply idiosyncratic conventions and techniques. Macromedia's workflow for web production is far, far superior to Adobe's in every regard except for color management and high-end image/graphic editing. Their "round-trip" code management is on an entirely different plane from Adobe's understanding of how to deal with HTML.

If I have to predict the shakeout, I'd predict that the final product lineup from the merged entity will include Dreamweaver and Flash from Macromedia, Acrobat, Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign from Adobe, and will probably include both ImageReady and Fireworks until they figure out which one is harder to de-integrate. My guess would be that the good bits of ImageReady would be incorporated into Fireworks, which has much, much stronger HTML generation capabilities. (That said, its file format may prove difficult to integrate with Photoshop and Illustrator.) Acrobat and Flash will have a relationship analogous to that between Flash and Director: Flash will be a mezzanine for rendering and delivering PDF, and Acrobat itself will continue as a separate product.

And, of course, Macromedia's server-side products will remain intact, because they're what Adobe really wants. Adobe is digital graphics, basically; but they aren't positioned to continue to grow in a post-Web world. Specifically, they are vulnerable to being obselesced as technology moves beyond them. Macromedia, by contrast, has spent the last several years experimenting with web-focused (not merely web-based) workflows.

ADDENDUM: After reviewing the MeFi thread, I'm no longer so sure that Adobe will be humble enough to keep Macromedia's very emperically-grown software development stack. And I see that some of my assumptions regarding the smartest choice of components may be too optimistic. One thing's for sure: Our web dev apps will sure be a lot more expensive...

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