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.