October 7, 2010

Adobe & Microsoft, Sitting in a Tree. W-T-F-I-N-G?

The New York Times reports that Adobe’s CEO met with Microsoft’s CEO to talk about how to work together to combat Apple, possibly even by Microsoft acquiring Adobe.

I… I can’t think of a joke here. I mean, besides “Adobe teaming with Microsoft to fight Apple.” I can’t think of an additional joke that’s funnier.

Where to start? Ok, first off, I remember reading that Adobe’s sales for Mac OS are disproportionately higher than on Windows given their total market shares (data point here, where it’s 75% Mac), possibly because of the conventional wisdom that Macs are more attractive to “creative professionals,” as they call them, which I think is an awesome term considering that it leaves Windows with “dull professionals” and “creative slackers,” both of which seem pretty accurate (and are markets I don’t want).

The strange sales proportions could also be because Macs don’t suck, so people on Mac actually use their computer and buy new software, whereas people on Windows tend to get the damn thing working and then not touch it for fear the whole thing will melt down. Which, to be fair, it will – I booted into Windows 7 last week and couldn’t get past the login screen without it crashing completely, because I’d hooked up either a USB Drobo or an off-the-shelf USB Razor mouse (who knows which?) without installing drivers first. I have witnesses.

Or it could be that the majority of Windows machines in the world are essentially turn-key systems; they’re sitting in banks or on trader’s desks and they’re running custom business software and IBM 3270 emulation crap and there’s no chance in hell the user would ever think about buying Photoshop for them or even be allowed to. These systems are treated like photocopiers or paper-shredders – they’re office equipment to do one job and you don’t screw with them.

Regardless, Apple’s star is clearly on the rise, with Mac OS consistently – and kind of quietly, with all the hubbub about iOS’ awesome-sauce success (say that aloud) – growing by about 30% a year.

So why is Adobe snuggling up to Microsoft? What does it even hope to gain? Sure, Adobe’s been “fighting” with Apple over the last couple years – there were stories of Adobe trying to limit what image-editing features Apple could add to iPhoto, for fear of it killing Photoshop Elements, and Apple famously didn’t include Flash on their iPhones, which kind of hampered Adobe’s plans to create a new universal OS based on a really, really buggy and non-performant ancient graphical scripting language, except what really hampered those plans is that they were trying to create a new universal OS based on a really, really buggy and non-performant ancient graphical scripting language.

But if you’re afraid of partnering with an operating systems vendor who kills your products, are you really going to then turn to Microsoft? Surely Adobe’s CEO, Shantanu Narayen, remembers when there were other word processors in the world (Wordperfect? Yes?) and Microsoft killed ‘em dead. (Hint: there was an antitrust suit over Microsoft withholding key APIs from Wordperfect that they were using in Word.) Or maybe remembers when Netscape was the majority browser, and Microsoft gave away Internet Explorer just to kill Netscape. Or when Microsoft discounted Microsoft Money down to, uh, free, just to kill Intuit?

Even if his memory isn’t that long, maybe he remembers when Microsoft released Microsoft Photo Editor or Microsoft Digital Image Pro, just to kill Adobe Elements, or when Microsoft was creating “XPS” just to kill Adobe PDF, or most recently when Microsoft released Silverlight, just to kill Adobe Flash.

So why the heck would Adobe ever want to “partner” with Microsoft to fight Apple, when Microsoft’s partners have a suspicious habit of dying young with knives sticking out of their throats? Mac OS and iOS are huge successes, and Adobe’s forte is selling applications. Adobe should, you know, write applications for the winning operating systems, not partner with the losers to fight them. And I don’t think Adobe needs the walking-around money that a merger would bring. (I’d think they’d have covered this in business school.)

There remains the possibility that this is actually a skillful gambit on the part of Mr. Narayen — after all, the oddest thing in this whole story is that Ballmer and his executives flew down to Adobe. Not the other way around. Isn’t Microsoft the bigger company here? Why are they going to Adobe? Note also that Adobe’s PR essentially confirmed the meeting (“the C.E.O.s of the two companies do meet from time to time”), whereas Microsoft had no comment. Meaning, Adobe wants the world to know. Microsoft, not so much.

Now, let’s play a game: pretend for a second that Steve Ballmer is driven by his need to conquer, and he’s also so angry at one of the people, say, I’m working with that he wants to kill them at all costs. So one day he shows up on my doorstep with a pile of Microsoft executives and asks to talk to me. Am I going to let him in?

Heck yes, after I put some pants on. Then I’m going to leak the story to the press. My stock is going to go up on rumors of some kind of deal with Apple (Adobe was up 10% last I saw), and my friends and enemies are all going to take me more seriously. It’s win/win for me, even though I have absolutely no intention of ever doing anything with Steve.

What’d Steve get out of this? Well, dick. He made himself look weak by visiting me and he showed the world how much he feared my friends and that he doesn’t think he can win any battles by actually competing on the merits of his products, which further covered him and his company with the stench of death. But remember we’re pretending that he’s a rage-driven CEO who need to conquer overwhelms all other impulses. Pretending.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe Adobe will strategize its business synergies and sell itself to Microsoft, that assuring its mediocrity for all time. They could even call the new company “Microbe.”

(Thanks to @UMAD on Twitter for that last joke.)

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