Anthony Doesburg: Software goliath has devotees in design world

If the visible face of the internet belongs to three software companies, two of them are reasonably obvious.

Microsoft provides the operating system and browser with which most people view the web, while Google's search engine is the key to finding much of the web's content. Both are so well-known that any internet user will have heard of them.

The third big contributor to how we experience the online world has a name that wouldn't trip off the casual computer user's tongue. Yet it has been in business for much longer than Google and almost as long as Microsoft. It is Adobe, maker of Flash, which powers YouTube, and Acrobat, the software used to create pdf files.

Designers - for old-fashioned print and the no longer new-fangled web - are not casual computer users, though, and many of them have a devotional relationship with Adobe. When company representatives popped over the Tasman from Sydney to Auckland in the middle of last month to talk about its latest software release, hundreds of devotees gathered to hear the word.

That suggests the recession isn't yet biting hard enough to stop creative businesses equipping themselves with the latest tools - because Adobe's products don't come cheap.

But it also shows what a good job Adobe is doing catering to design practitioners.

The California company is really the only show in town when it comes to providing a complete digital design toolkit. Its Creative Suite, release 4 of which came out late last year and is known as CS4, contains everything you need to produce a sophisticated print publication, website or video.

Steve Martin, creative director at Auckland web design company Terabyte Interactive, says one Adobe product or another will have had a part in every job the firm does. Terabyte's customers include Fonterra, Palmerston North City Council and Beds R Us.

Graphics program Photoshop is used extensively to manipulate images, Illustrator for drawing and Flash for animation and embedding video.

"From a design position, Adobe's products are the standards," says Martin, who heads a team of more than a dozen Creative Suite users on Windows PCs.

Adobe holds sway by sheer weight of numbers. It claims more than three-quarters of online videos are viewed using the free Flash Player.

In website development, however, Adobe's dominance is less pronounced. Dreamweaver, Creative Suite's html editor, is less favoured by Terabyte's website coders than Microsoft Visual Studio.

In the world of print design, there's no question of Adobe's supremacy, says Sean McGarry, a director of Wellington creative agency Base Two. About 60 per cent of the 12-year-old firm's work is print, although that's steadily moving towards the web.

Publishing program InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop are the three Adobe products most in use at Base Two. The way they work together is their strength, McGarry says.

"We don't really look at other products," he says, even though CS4 can cost up to $5000 for a single user. "That's just a cost of doing business."

Adobe didn't always have things entirely its way and many of the products at Creative Suite's core were the creation of other companies.

InDesign originated as PageMaker, desktop publishing software developed by Aldus, bought by Adobe in 1994. Video editing program After Effects came with it and is also part of Creative Suite.

But another Aldus program, Freehand, was sacrificed for Adobe's own drawing software, Illustrator. Flash and Dreamweaver were acquired from Macromedia, which Adobe bought in 2005.

There's no question of Adobe's own inventiveness. Its first claim to fame, in 1984, was development of PostScript, the page description language that helped launch the desktop publishing era.

In 1990 came image editing software Photoshop, so successful that "to photoshop" a picture has become part of the language. Three years later Adobe released its Portable Document Format, or pdf, now a standard for publishing documents on the web.

Calum Russell, the company's Australia and New Zealand head of marketing, says interest in Adobe's products is shifting from print alone to "richer" media, by which the company means online, video and interactive forms, such as kiosks.

But the venerable pdf, updated with the release of Acrobat 9 in CS4, is also worthy of attention. Its Portfolio feature allows images, audio and video to be incorporated with text to breathe life into what was a static file format.

Now if the same could be done for print, that really would be something.

Adobe Systems
Founded: 1982
2008 revenue: US$3.58b
Key products include: Acrobat (document management); Photoshop (image manipulation); Illustrator (drawing); Flash (animation); InDesign (publishing)

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland-based technology journalist.

- NZ Herald

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