Adobe’s impending purchase of Macromedia has fueled no end of speculation on the fate of now-redundant applications and hand-wringing over the impact of the acquisition on popular Macromedia applications, not to mention the loss of competition in the space. But all that’s really a sideshow. The meat of the story is what this means for what Macromedia terms ‘rich internet applications’, and for the future of web standards in the space.
Adobe has established their PostScript-based PDF as a de facto standard for creating electronic documents in situations where the mutability of HTML isn’t necessarily desirable, such as when ‘soft proofing’ a document destined for print or when distributing documents like court decisions where textual integrity is paramaount. But there’s another class of documents where Adobe hasn’t been so successful: forms requiring data entry. While PDF works well for print-and-complete style forms, Adobe hasn’t had much success wooing organizations that wish to have recipients complete and submit forms online. Truth to tell, no one vendor really has — though it’s not for lack of trying.
Pre-web, printed forms was a huge industry. Organisations required printed paper order forms, expense reports, requisition forms, employee evaluations, application forms — you name it. Supplying these forms became an industry unto itself. One of my first jobs was working with a printer who specialized in short-run jobs the giant forms printers of the day couldn’t run profitably. Today those large forms printers are virtually extinct, and my former employer is carrying on as a niche player. A once-proud industry has been effectively reduced to rubble, and IT &mdash particularly the web &mdash is the reason.
Organizations have discovered that electronic forms save not only printing costs, but can save time and money by helping recipients enter data accurately through effective UIs and validation of the input. As a result, many paper forms have been converted to online applications built with everything from Filemaker to Lotus Notes to good ol’ HTML.
‘Electronic forms’ are big business, and a host of companies have been fighting for a piece of it. Former forms printing heavyweight Amgraf has been working on the market since the mid-1990s. Microsoft‘s Office applications, particularly Excel, Access, Outlook and Word have long been de facto players in this space, and more recently Microsoft have addressed the problem specifically with InfoPath. The W3C‘s xForms targets this space too, as does WHATWG‘s Web Forms 2.0. But the most widely-used solution is good old HTML.
Macromedia has come at the space from the other direction. Their Flash technology has grown from an animation and vector illustration format into a technology for developing sophisticated GUIs. Here, they compete with the likes of the Mozilla Foundation‘s XUL and XBL, Sun Microsystems‘ Java and Microsoft’s Windows Forms. Other players include WHATWG’s Web Applications 1.0 and Web Controls 1.0, the W3C‘s SVG and soon Microsoft’s XAML. Recently, the-technologies-formerly-known-as-DHTML have also resurfaced as a viable option under the Ajax moniker.
As document-centric electronic forms solutions like PDF begin to offer sophisticated UI and validation capabilities, and rich internet application technologies become easier to develop and more flexible in their presentation, the two are increasingly competing head-to-head. By acquiring Macromedia and their Flash technology, Adobe has positioned themselves on both sides of the competition with the document-centric PDF and the ‘rich UI’-centric SWF It’s a classic pincer maneuver, though with such heavyweights as IBM, Microsoft, SAP and Sun in the middle one could be forgiven for wondering who’s surrounding who.
From a standards perspective, both Adobe and Macromedia have pledged — and delivered — increasing levels of support for web standards in their web authoring tools (GoLive and Dreamweaver, respectively). I don’t see any reason to expect that will change. Where rich UIs are concerned, however, the situation is less hopeful.
Adobe has long dabbled with SVG, adding SVG export to Illustrator and the ill-fated LiveMotion animation package as well as offering an SVG Viewer plug-in for browsers. SVG has carved out a solid niche in the mobile space, but on the desktop Macromedia’s SWF rules the roost — recent efforts to add native SVG support to Opera and Mozilla notwithstanding. But as this otherwise-flawed* C|Net article points out, Adobe’s previously standards-centric approach to rich internet applications is in direct competition with their newly-acquired Flash technology.
While I don’t expect Adobe to drop SVG straightaway, if only to hedge their bets, it seems foolish to think Adobe will pursue it with anywhere near the same enthusiasm they have in the past. After all, if they had faith in the endeavor why would they bother purchasing the technology’s primary competitor?
Right now, it’s far too early to say who or what will come to dominate the RIA space. PDF and SWF have an early lead in document-centric and presentation-centric areas. SVG is looking strong in the mobile space. Microsoft’s XAML will no doubt be a strong player as well, if only due to a potential installed base rivaled only by the PDF+SWF. With IT heavyweights like IBM and SAP behind it, xForms is also hard to count out, and the most-used option at present is plain old HTML, wether enhanced by ECMAScript, CSS and the DOM or not.
In the end, I doubt any one technology will dominate completely. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. The question is whether those left standing will be owned and controlled by one company or will be free and open. And that’s a decision that will ultimately be made by end users and developers — us, in other words.
Interesting times indeed.
* The article characterizes Adobe’s GoLive as ‘ill-fated’ but supports the assertion with a link to an article announcing the discontinuation of the LiveMotion animation app. In fact, while GoLive hasn’t posed much of a threat to Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, it has attracted a loyal following. As well, the article claims Macromedia introduced FreeHand as a response to Adobe Illustrator, when in fact FreeHand was acquired by Macromedia in the early ’90s when Adobe purchased Aldus, FreeHand’s original developer.
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