Kevin Lynch and Adobe: Shooting the Messenger

There’s been some nasty commentary about Apple’s decision to hire Kevin Lynch from Adobe. John Gruber at Daring Fireball has been especially acerbic, and there certainly are some things Lynch has said that look dumb when you read them today. But while I usually agree with the Fireball, in this case I think you need to look beyond Lynch’s statements and understand the situation he was in at Adobe.

Let me start with a little history. Adobe is a software powerhouse, with a long and very successful history in publishing and multimedia. But despite all its successes, I think it deserves to go down in history as the company that choked when it had the opportunity to rule the world, not once but twice.

In the formative years of the Internet, Adobe could have set the standard for formatting web pages. Adobe PostScript was far more sophisticated and capable than HTML, which became core standard for displaying web pages. HTML is basically a text formatting specification. You give it a bunch of text tagged with suggestions for things like “this should be bold” or “underline this” or “this is a link,” and then the browser does its best to interpret the tags. HTML was derived from a formatting standard used in academia and government publishing, and it’s great for long text-only reports. But it was not designed to mix text and graphics. That’s why we still struggle to fully integrate great graphics with the web even today.

In contrast, PostScript is a programming language designed to mix text and graphics effortlessly. You can use it to control exactly where every pixel and image goes on the screen, and exactly how it looks. It was so powerful and so far ahead of its time that Steve Jobs’ NeXT chose it as the graphics language for its workstations. Using PostScript, you could easily draw things twenty years ago that we still can’t do on web pages today. The nagging incompatibilities and formatting weirdnesses we have to cope with from HTML, the fragile hacks and workarounds that web page designers live with every day...none of that had to happen.

Unfortunately, Adobe was so obsessed with making money selling PostScript interpreters that it was unwilling to make PostScript an open standard when it could have made a difference.  And so Adobe missed the chance to set the graphics standard for the web.

Fast forward a few years, and Adobe again fumbled the chance for greatness, this time with Flash. This wasn’t just Adobe’s fault; it was a joint project with Macromedia, which Adobe bought in 2005. Flash became the dominant animation and video playback standard for the web because, unlike the situation with PostScript, the player was free. There was no cost for users or tech companies to adopt the standard, and so it spread wildly, boosted by a bundling deal with Microsoft (link). There was a time in the early 2000s, prior to the iPhone and Android, when the mobile phone world was ripe for a takeover by software that would let you produce great visuals on a smartphone. Palm OS was too weak for the task, Windows CE was a mess, and Symbian was, well, Symbian. Macromedia, and later Adobe, could have set the standard for mobile phone graphics if they had given away the Flash player for mobile phones. But Macromedia had lucked into a licensing deal under which Japan’s NTT DoCoMo paid to put Flash on millions of mobile phones (link). Macromedia and Adobe fell in love with that revenue stream and decided they could extract money from every other mobile phone company in the world by charging for the player.

I’d call that move arrogant, but it was more than that – it was stupid. You can’t set a standard in tech and maximize short-term profit at the same time. For a few years of profit, Adobe sacrificed the opportunity to dominate the mobile phone market for a generation, and in the process fatally weakened Flash on the PC as well.

I could go on and on about the opportunities Adobe squandered: AIR, e-books...it’s a depressing list that reminds me of the stories people tell about Xerox PARC. If I thought Kevin Lynch was the executive responsible for those moves, I’d be shocked that Apple hired him. But as far as I can tell, they were made by other people, and he was stuck playing out the hand he was dealt. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. If you’re part of a team you do the best you can and trust that the folks around you will do theirs. If you want to fault Kevin for something, fault him for staying so long at a company that was putting quarterly profits ahead of long-term investment.

So my reaction to the Lynch hiring depends on what Apple’s going to ask him to do, and we don’t know that yet. If Apple wants him to run business strategy I’ll be worried, because I don’t think he had great role models at Adobe. If Apple wants him to run marketing I’ll be alarmed. But I think Apple has hired him as a technologist. In that role he’s extremely smart and easy to work with, and Apple fans, I think he can be an asset to the company.

Disclosure: I did a little bit of consulting for Adobe in the past, and have met Kevin Lynch. This article doesn’t include any confidential or inside information.

13 comments:

Walt French said...

Nice balance and focus on what matters.

But in addition to a person who's “extremely smart and easy to work with,” it'd be nice to see how Lynch moved the ball forward.

The Flash debacle was especially grating, as it seemed the commitment to “mobile first” was made without considering the technical and business challenges of putting a free reader on hundreds of CPU, GPU, OS versions, display drivers and screen sizes, all on vastly under-powered machines — phones that don't have enough power to keep my laptop's GPU running for a half hour.

If a CTO can't help a company tackle problems that it can solve (versus getting a black eye from a belated admission that it can't afford to do a good job), what good is it for him to be smart and affable?

Thanks to Adobe's and Google's fumbles and half-hearted, distracted efforts, the whole industry — and of course, especially Apple — could benefit from a vision of distributed user experiences that a back-to-its-roots Flash could have kicked off. But is that what he'll actually do?

Michael Mace said...

Thanks, Walt.

You raise a good question, and since I'm not an Adobe insider I can't answer it. Adobe's a very large place, so from the outside it's hard to attribute the success or failure of anything to a single individual.

Anonymous said...

Normally, I very much enjoy your postings and the insights that you offer. This time, however, I think your comments on Postscript and the web are far off the mark.

The html-web flourished because it was simple and good-enough. Postscript flourished, _behind the scenes_, because it allowed high quality print layout without having to learn every printer control language that the manufacturers could dream up.

Only a very few masochists write Postscript directly and yet that's what boot-strapped the early web. I think a Postscript web would have gone nowhere!

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comment, and yeah I guess we do disagree. I think PostScript is incredibly easy to program. Its biggest drawback is that it's stack-based, which makes debugging difficult. But it's also fiendishly difficult to debug an HTML page that doesn't quite display right because it's running into small (often undocumented) differences between browser versions.

Having done both, I prefer PostScript because at least there are boundaries on the problem.

Besides, I don't think many web coders would have written PostScript directly. Instead, they could have designed pages in a visual editing tool and let the tool create the code. One of the nice things about PostScript is that it's deterministic enough that you could have had high confidence that if you created your page once it would display properly everywhere.

The fact that web designers tweak their own HTML code is not a strength; it's a sign of just how sick and broken the whole HTML paradigm is. It's as if you had to hotwire your car every time you wanted to drive it.

It would have been nice to see a heads-up competition between HTML and a freely licensed version of PostScript. I personally think PostScript would have smoked HTML the same as it did SGML.

Unfortunately, we'll never know.

TDC123 said...

If you feel the HTML paradigm is broken, what are your thoughts on HTML5? I know ADOBE is also trying to facilitate the acceptance of HTML5 along with most of the industry any do you think most of the problems in HTML will be fixed in HTML5?

Chan said...

Wow.. wow.. wow...

It goes back on my memory lane…

I questioned myself the same, when I was working at a press-media-ad company in 1998-2000 a decade back. There we ran beautiful print-press ads, so perfect in pixels, girls eyes poped, the same were enlarged at 5 to 10 to 20 feet at times for a quick-and-dirty road-shows and billboards, still brilliant, striking and the same visual quality.. sometimes all by myself when my designers were gone out for lunch.

I lived the golden age of Pagemaker, Freehand, Illustrator, PostScript, PDF Distiller magic with finer prints and less worries...

Later, fast forward a decade where I now work as UI head I see the dismal but mammoth efforts we put to get that small x company logo alined properly, with correct font where the exact x and y coordinates that I want it to be across a ten-zillion different screens.


My gosh, I killed the beloved part-time-designer-in me in despair and hired two full time subordinates, to design apart, just to get the layouts right. I wondered who was the f&*&ˆ%%g a&*ˆhole who put the HTML on the supposed to be future of the publishing platform.

The industry were doing far more pixel-perfect designs with meager means a 20 years back than we do it today with million budget.

Now my company have the greatest lumbago of converting it's cash flow products (one Flash based) to look nice, run every-where next version overhaul. I opt to go "native" while my CTO wants a "run everywhere solution" and now my technical guys killing themselves and each other to give us "the solution" me and my CTO wants which will please my CEO.

I checked now from last August they still kill each other in the lab, I just patch work what we already run. For more than a year now the next version is still in the cubical, when it gets to the drawing board, it may be too little, too late.

The only way forward, Steve preached, go native as it seems. Though I endorsed it, my folks ain't like it much cos their efforts. Somehow somewhere we may miss the train.

Shame on Adobe, for messing up my not-so-beloved Flash, killing PostScript. I have long lost my faith on HTML, 5 or whatever it still SUCKS!

Chan said...

Mike,

I got this bit from a comment of Elia Insider site.

Is exactly what I also wish for. :-D

"Based on your recommendation I purchased a copy and read through. He needs a slim volume that’s just the DIY for start ups, this book is useful for a Fortune 500 firm that’s purchasing research and hiring competitive intelligence folks (topics he devoted considerable space to) but it’s hard to find the nuggets that a start up could act on."

I am still reading yours and find too much for my little brain, time and English.

It's a good idea to drill it down for small folks like me (two people operating) to be more focused without sweating over to focus or understand F500 issues.

Alexander Gödde said...

HTML was never intended to fulfill the role that PostScript does so well. Pixel-perfect design is not the Web. The web is not print pages transferred to a screen, meant to just be consumed. It is different screen sizes, resolutions and usage scenarios.
The difficulty in making certain that content displays in a certain way is a trade off for being able to display it everywhere.
Could HTML be better designed, and and could browser implementations be more uniform? Certainly yes . Would the web as ubiquitous as it is now if PostScript had been adopted for Web page display? Equally certainly not.

Michael Mace said...

It's all a theoretical discussion anyway, but I think PostScript could have been revised to work with multiple screen sizes and resolutions far more easily than we can fix everything wrong with the tagged text model in HTML.

The other thing that would've needed work in PostScript was the ability to extract text from a page. That's relatively straightforward with HTML, whereas it's not with PostScript because each page is essentially a computer program in its own right. But Adobe could have added a function to extract the text.

Michael Mace said...

I think the ideas behind HTML 5 and related technologies are great, but they are taking far, far, far, far too long to implement.

Michael Mace said...

So a shorter version of the book focused just on the info needed by a small business. Thanks for the suggestion, Chan. I wont be able to do anything about this instantly, but I'll think about it very seriously.

Chan said...

Well, not quite so.

Forget the data end part, if you take Flash paper (PDF) was one of the best for doc presentation.
Integrate it with a data set you get Flash, or aka AIR applications. Adobe didn't get it right.

It's best of both worlds for visual presentation. If visual designers given the proper tools, NOT the gibberish primitive HTML to lay the modern web.
It would all have been one seamless UI just like native iOS app from the beginning.

I presume all of Mac OSX and iOS UI is laid upon on a kind of a PostScript/ PDF way. Anyone? If it was good enough for Steve to base on his
beloved OS platforms, how come it is not good enough for otherwise now lousy web?

Web would have anyway been as ubiquitous as it is regardless the technology if it always had the "linkage" from A to B and to the data set
with a proper layout mechanism.

Sometime it's best given to a guy like Steve Jobs to give technology a human face, alas that HTML were originated in the hands of geeks.
Irony is here, as Mace says Adobe had all the nuts & bolts within to make the web cake Creative Suite compatible and ate it all.

Because they didn't do it right, do it on time.

We have MS Word and PDF, Flash & Silver light, JQuery and PHP, X browser and Y Browser, this and that all the world of soup of technologies to do almost the same thing.

And now Android, iOS and the other platform fragmentation.

Someone say "choice" is a good thing. Agree on one part.

But

For end user it may not be visible. But as a guy in the developer end this is utter waste of human money, time and efforts just for getting things right. Where as those efforts have been well spend on real world solutions.

So there is a another way to look at it.

Imagine, Adobe could have prevented so much of wasted years in the technology landscape, if they did standardized the web early on, before it became all in one soup. 20 years ago they had such a beautiful marvelous layout mechanism aka PostScript and on top of it they had the world's most talked about interactive animation tool Flash under their wings.

Not that all Flash is good, Steve's points plus Flash is very lousy developer environment (IDE) for code eaters.

Nonetheless Adobe could have resolved all that. They didn't. We suffer.

Chan said...

Yeah, Mace, I also presume Adobe could have done better with PostScript web phraser, than we all rest of the world did with HTML