05 June 2006

Adobe and Microsoft: Who's right?

There was an interesting story doing the rounds late last week about Adobe and Microsoft having a bit of a fight ostensibly about Office 2007's ability to create PDF documents directly. Ars Technica's summary is a good starting point, though I found it a bit lacking in digging under the covers on this particular story.

There is no question that Microsoft's customers will have been telling it that direct export to PDF would be a nice feature. I have found the ability in Mac OS X to print ANY document as a PDF to be a great feature which I use all the time for keeping online statements/receipts and for ensuring documents I exchange with other people are 100% clean and compatible (Word and Excel documents can contain viruses and IMHO are not ideal for mass distribution).

I don't know whether Apple pays any license fee to Adobe for this ability to produce PDFs that is built into the OS (or for the ability of free applications like Preview to display PDFs). I suspect not. As far as I know, the PDF specification is also openly available, and indeed is surely a reason why it has become such a popular format. Sure, some Mac users are less likely to need Adobe Acrobat to produce more feature rich PDF's (I for instance have never found a need for it), so Adobe loses some revenues, but it surely gains far more when PDF's are as dominant a file format as the Office formats are.

Why shouldn't Microsoft add this feature that many of its customers want so desperately? And why should it have to charge for it (apparently this is part of the dispute), if it doesn't want to and none of it's competitors has to? Surely we should side with Microsoft here, and against Adobe?

But there are a few deeper elements to this case, some of which have either gone unreported or at best just glossed over. The most obvious issue is that Microsoft is also developing a portable document format of it's own - Metro - which is to be part of Vista, but will also be available on older Windows platforms and, supposedly, open-licensed. So, it is going head-to-head with Adobe. While there are differences, if you read this interview with a key player in Metro's development, you will probably, like me, view the differences as being somewhat small.

Metro is a brazen attempt by Microsoft to muscle in on that space. It is more important than it might have been as Microsoft's own file format barriers (primarily Office formats) are opened up. This has been happening due to both legal and business threats ranging from the State of Massachusetts, some European government organisations and OpenOffice. It was the proprietary nature of these formats that has given Microsoft such a lock-in on the Office application market for years. While Metro is not a proprietary format (it would have been panned if it had been), I'm sure Microsoft would rather be the dominant controlling authority on a format than not.

But even if Microsoft's attempts are brazen, is that any reason why it's wrong? Not necessarily. But from Adobe's point of view, perhaps their actions are if anything pre-emptive. A look back at history would show that Microsoft has often embraced other technologies and then used it's dominance to subtly change those technologies to its own ends. It's work with HTML and Internet Explorer is a classic example which has been essentially anti-consumer by forcing many users into a browser lock or by not having proper access to a site because their own browser couldn't display non-standard HTML. I'm sure Adobe is also considering what happened to Sun Microsystems with Java. Microsoft embedded Java into some of it's applications and OS but created extensions and changes which were not opened up. The .NET environment is the prime vehicle in which Microsoft did this work. Microsoft advertised such products as "Java compatible". Microsoft eventually settled with Sun in 2004, again paying substantial damages. By then the damage was done (for Sun, and to some extent for Java).

With Microsoft adding support for PDF AND Metro into Office2007, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see that they could subtly change/add feature(s) so that users are eventually tricked/forced/coerced into using Metro formats rather than PDF. Even just changing the default format would have a major effect.

Of course, Adobe is perhaps also being opportunistic. Perhaps it fancies a piece of the multi-billion dollar cash hoard that Microsoft hands out to other companies that sue it, rather than its shareholders? Real Networks $761m settlement last year was certainly mouth-watering I'm sure. It is interesting that it seems to be pushing the battle in Europe which is where there is currently a greater propensity to investigate Microsoft.

I'm pretty sure that those of us who would rather not use Microsoft's OS and those that don't really want to use MS Office would be losers if Microsoft establishes Metro as a replacement for PDF. But just as ALL Internet Explorer users have been "punished" by having an insecure, outdated browser by Microsoft's dominance there, I would guess that in a similar way Metro dominance would be a bad thing for everyone at some point in the future.

Adobe's PDF is certainly good enough for what I do. It's on just about every device I need (including my Nokia phone). Yes, I'd like it to evolve, and yes I'd like it to be more open, but I really don't believe the world needs two standards in this area, and I would certainly trust a "standard" controlled by Adobe more than one controlled by Microsoft. So, ideally this will be resolved in a way which actually benefits all users of both companies' products and doesn't benefit lawyers or the shareholders of Adobe via a massive blood-money payoff. That means a quick and positive resolution. In that regard, perhaps Adobe's pre-emptiveness is a good thing.

Footnote to this story: Whatever else the merits of this issue, it is yet another demonstration of the mountain that Microsoft has to climb to get Vista out the door. I have mentioned some of these problems in
this post about IE7 and Google
and here about Microsoft's real competitors

Symantec (previously another Microsoft partner) has also taken them to court over Vista features. What these stories show (Adobe, Google, Symantec) is that every little Microsoft feature must be debated by lawyers as well as software engineers. This obviously holds back progress and causes delays, and even then may just end up in a protracted court case. Whether you believe Microsoft is capable of innovation (and I would happily give them credit to do this), the fact is that they are not able to release it. A break-up is what should have happened several years ago. Microsoft's customers would benefit from this, their shareholders, and probably their employees.

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