I just watched the latest MacWorld video podcast which discusses the launch of a beta release of Photoshop CS3 for existing Photoshop customers.
While I am sure that pro Mac users will be very pleased to be able to finally use this great app at full speed on modern Apple hardware, I cannot avoid wondering why Adobe decided to take this unprecedented step. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that this isn’t the first time Adobe has released a beta of one of their products. It has happened twice before. In order to react to the launch of Aperture by Apple, Adobe rushed to offer a free beta of LightRoom. Something similar happened with Soundbooth, a new product designed to compete against Apple’s SoundTrack Pro. It was clear that these moves were in reaction to competitive threats and there was no reason to believe that Adobe would continue on this path with established products such as Photoshop.
On the video, Adobe product manager says that one of the main reasons to release the beta was to please their existing Macintosh customers. The fact that this beta is not open to everyone seems to confirm this. If they had decided to offer the download to everyone, this could have affected their sales to new customers, not a pleasant scenario. But what does Adobe gain from helping Apple customers? I think that this is a fair question, because in the past, Adobe has proven in multiple occasions that they couldn’t care less if their customers ran their products on Windows or Mac OS X boxes. In fact, it could be argued that they preferred Windows since some of their products only run on that platform. The fact that over 60% of their customer base is currently on XP is a direct result of their business decisions.
So, what has changed? As a publicly traded company, Adobe cannot afford to take decisions based on OS preferences or even customer preferences (otherwise they would just give away their products). They have to take a look at the competitive landscape and act accordingly. The question therefore is, what competitive threats is Adobe facing?
As any successful Microsoft partner knows, if they grow past a threshold they will ultimately have to compete against Redmond. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at what is happening in the antivirus or ERP market. It is well known that Microsoft has been working hard on competitors to Photoshop and DreamWeaver, and that those products have either just been released or are in late beta stages (under the new Expression brand). The launch of the Photoshop CS3 beta could therefore be interpreted as a defensive move against these new products and as a way to stop more designers to move to the Windows platform where there now is more competition than on the Mac.
That is a nice theory but I hardly believe it is the whole story. The Macintosh platform is hardly a safe harbor for Adobe. Apple has grown a solid software business in the multimedia market where Adobe has its own ambitions. Apple has also significantly beefed up Mac OS X in recent versions, adding new APIs such as Core Image, that make it easier and easier to create Photoshop competitors. This has led many to believe that Apple could be close to launch its own Photoshop competitor. It could be that Adobe has reasons to believe that Apple is very close to release a product, maybe as soon as MacWorld. After all, in Silicon Valley rumors spread very quickly.
Whatever the reasons that motivated Adobe’s move, it is clear that currently, even though they currently totally dominate the creative software market, they indeed are between a rock and a hard place. Of all their products, one of their cash cows, Photoshop, is probably one of the easiest targets. Losing market share in that product category would directly translate into a sharp drop in profitability which would have dramatic effects on their stock price. This, in turn, could make them an acquisition target for a company with deep pockets, like, surprise surprise, Apple (MS would run into antitrust trouble if they tried to buy the company).
In the end I believe that this was just a defensive move designed to anticipate on both Microsoft and Apple. It is probably part of a strategy, where being truly platform agnostic will be presented to their customers as an important competitive advantage. This is a significant shift for Adobe and Mac users stand to gain from this new situation. However, even with a non-partisan Adobe, I still would like to see Apple enter the competition. Why? Well, simply because I believe that they have consistently demonstrated that they do develop great software and we all know that even though Photoshop is a very good product it can be improved.