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Adobe takes it to the MAX

Adobe staged its MAX 2006 developer and customer conference under the theme "Beyond Boundaries" to showcase the company's emerging technologies and provide a glimpse of future innovations. Adrian Bridgwater attended to drink it all in.

Adobe's MAX 2006 event was held at The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas from the 23rd to the 26th of October - the company's first event of this kind since joining forces with Macromedia. Adobe's focus was directed at highlighting the newest breed of rich applications and what it likes to call "engaging content and experiences" under the banner of its next-generation technology.

Described by Adobe as a chance for its community of developers and customers to reinvent the future of the Internet and design in virtually every medium, MAX 2006 was billed as both a milestone in the integration of Adobe and Macromedia and a reflection of what's possible when all these creative forces come together.

Typical to large-scale events of this kind, MAX 2006 featured over 100 workshops and hands-on sessions. The event included technical support labs, partner exhibits, certification programs, birds-of-a-feather networking events and presentations from industry experts as well as in-depth technical sessions that covered a range of Adobe products and solutions.

Community Spirit
In addition to the various certification programs it supports, it's encouraging to see a company like Adobe engendering a vibrant level of shared participation in technology among the developer community. The Acrobat User Community (you can sign up at www.acrobatusers.com) has over 5000 users and is growing strong. Spread over 75 countries, the site's users benefit from blogs, news, articles, tips and tutorials. The Web site, Adobe says, is a gathering place where developers can share and exchange ideas and tap into the broad expertise that characterizes the Acrobat community. And most important of all is the long-established Adobe Developer Center (developer.adobe.com), which hosts blogs, articles, tutorials, SDKs, and sample applications, attracting thousands of users every day. The Adobe developer community contributes a large percentage of this content, which makes the Developer Center the "face" of the community.

Adobe held pre-conference sessions for both delegates and press. The press sessions were well presented and the speakers themselves were keen to insist on "interactive" meetings with as many questions as possible. Adobe is far more open than the likes of Apple or Intel - and sets realistic goals in areas where "ubiquitous mass market roll out" (a term it is especially fond of!) of its technologies is still some way off.

The Mobile/Devices Perspective
In mobile, Adobe continues to leverage relationships with handset manufacturers, operators and content aggregators to offer developer communities the fully-integrated technologies necessary to deliver what it calls "breakthrough mobile experiences."

Adobe's mobile and devices guru Anup Murarka gave us an insight into the company's work in the mobile space. He explained that Flash and PDF deployment has proliferated in Asia mainly due to the specific alignment with the mobile phone market - but that increasing growth is starting to show in Europe and the USA. "Deployment of Flash has probably grown more than any other mobile technology in the world over the last three years," said Murarka.

  • Over 150 mobile devices have now been certified to utilize Flash Lite. Many more are expected in the coming twelve months.
  • 210,000 registered users have signed up for Adobe's mobile developer program and this number is expected to mushroom with newly announced handset support for the USA.
  • Flash is increasingly being used to deploy the complete UI for new phones...
...and, UIs are being developed to target precise demographics as the UI can be rolled out so much faster now. New phones have night-and-day backgrounds that feature a sky that changes from sunshine to stars with the time of day. They are also location-aware and will show a picture of the Arc de Triomphe as you travel through Paris and the Opera House when you land in Sydney for example. Commercially, this is good news - as new UIs could also be sold online.

Adobe's partnerships with mobile media publishers who include Flash Lite software in product portfolios present developers with additional opportunities to commercialize Flash mobile content. Also interesting is Flash Cast, originally from the Macromedia side of the bed; this is a flexible client-server solution that effectively delivers rich, intuitive, branded mobile data experiences. Server-hosted broadcasts push content to the phone such as stocks and shares data, your favourite television channel schedule or even games. With content developed in Flash, it could also be used to connect to RSS feeds and download content that has been reformatted for phones.

"This is the kind of rich experience that changed the way the way the Web worked - and now we see that happening in mobile," said Muraka. As yet, NTT DoCoMo is the only company to have made significant headway with this technology. That said, more than two million mobile phone subscribers have signed up for NTT DoCoMo's i-channel news and information delivery service since it was launched in Japan last September.

"We have been astonished by the unprecedented success of i-channel, which proves that consumers embrace data services when they are automatically delivered and presented in a compelling and interactive way," said Takeshi Natsuno, senior vice president at NTT DoCoMo.

In terms of strategy, Adobe's Flash Player technology is installed on over 700 million Internet connected desktops and mobile devices worldwide and it is aiming to see the same level of mass ubiquity on mobile phones. The recently announced acquisition of vector graphics technology developed by Actimagine will help considerably in reaching mass ubiquity on mobile phones.

So mobile is crucial, then. "Flexible user interfaces are a key differentiator and a significant part of the value creation on devices," said John Jackson, senior analyst at Yankee Group, in a statement issued by Adobe. "Flash Lite 2 and Flash Player SDK 7 expand vendors' and operators' U/I options and open the mobile market to a broader base of content and prolific developers."

Day One Keynote
The morning of the keynote came - and we were colorfully awakened by an intro from the Blue Man Group (who by no coincidence play at the Venetian). Adobe president and chief operating officer Shantanu Narayen welcomed an extremely enthusiastic crowd still whooping from the shock of seeing plastic blue men playing rock music at 8:30 in the morning.

Narayen described the acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe as having been rather like any other traditional marriage: the respective chiefs first went into a period of "dating" before the deal was finally sealed. It's true to say, this has been one of the better-received examples of the industry coming together. Not just because the number of employees affected was relatively small (compared to say, the HP-Compaq scenario) - but also because the reaction from users was almost completely positive given the synergy the two companies shared and the opportunity it presented for a better set of tools to soon be developed.

At a high level, the keynote presentations were projected not only to present working examples of emerging Adobe technologies, but also to set the scene for the company's "Apollo" project, which continues to generate pre-release interest among developers and businesses due to its promise to extend the reach and capabilities of today's rich Internet applications, freeing them to run outside of the browser, across multiple operating systems on desktops and devices.

Adobe plans to invest approximately US$100 million in venture capital over the next three to five years in companies leveraging Adobe platform technologies, particularly companies delivering applications via Apollo, as part of Adobe's commitment to building an ecosystem for what it terms the Adobe Engagement Platform.

Narayen closed by introducing the hugely popular Ben Forta, who presented a portion of the keynote. Forta, Adobe's senior technical evangelist, is the author of books on ColdFusion, SQL, Windows 2000, JSP, WAP, Regular Expressions and more. His work emphasis is on Adobe's application server and software development framework ColdFusion as he strives to provide feedback to help shape the future direction of the product. His personal Web site is listed at the end of this feature and is a must-read for self-confessed geeks of all shapes and sizes.

eBook Worms
Also making a splash at this year's event (and featuring up front in the keynote) was news of Adobe Digital Editions, a rich Internet application (RIA) built from the ground up for digital publishing. With native support for PDF as well as an XHTML-based reflow-centric publication format, Digital Editions promises to deliver an engaging way to acquire, read and manage content, including eBooks, digital magazines, digital newspapers and other digital publications.

Initially available as a free public beta for Windows, Digital Editions will support Macintosh systems as a universal binary application, Linux platforms, as well as mobile phones and other embedded devices in future versions.

"Adobe Digital Editions builds on the ubiquitous reach of PDF and Flash and will further energize the eBook and digital publishing market," said Narayen. "By creating a specialized, consumer-friendly application like this, Adobe is ensuring publishers can securely deliver high-impact content to the widest possible audience, across hardware platforms, operating systems and devices."

This is Adobe's first Flex 2.0 application to go commercial and, as Bill McCoy puts it, "Digital publishing has reached a tipping point." McCoy is general manager of the company's ePublishing business and in a later breakout session he explained why consumers are now demanding electronic delivery of data that was previously only published in print data in this way. His justifications included the following points:

  • Public libraries are now lending out eBooks.
  • Textbooks in eBook format are now being used in education.
  • eBooks have been embraced by well-known technical publishers such as O'Reilly.
  • Young people are demanding that their content be delivered digitally.
  • ePublishing brings with it new capabilities such as on-demand, portability, searchability, etc.
  • Sales of laptops and other devices with improved ergonomics are now far outstripping PCs.
Digital Editions delivers a straightforward user experience for reading and managing commercially published digital publications. It builds on the Adobe eBook capabilities that were integrated into previous versions of Adobe Reader and takes them further by adding the ability to incorporate Flash interactivity and rich media, enabling publishers to create next-generation digital publications that McCoy would argue surpass digital forms of paper books.

Digital Editions' support for Flash SWF will enable new levels of interactivity and rich media delivery, McCoy notes. The Digital Editions beta includes integration with Adobe Acrobat 8 and Reader 8, which can install and launch Digital Editions from within their user interface.

Why hasn't ePublishing mushroomed before now, I asked McCoy. "Consumers and content publishers still suffer from format confusion," he replied. Other factors include client software, digital rights management hassles, inordinate costs and Web browser limitations, he added.

"As a result, a whole host of proprietary formats has sprung up (at least a dozen) so that the authoring tools the publishers use could not viably work commercially up until this point," McCoy continued.

Digital Editions aims to rectify this problem as it assures content portability and is lightweight as well as being both consumer-optimized and content-centric rather than application-experience-centric. (As a sidenote, Adobe InDesign will be augmented to embrace and support this technology.)


More Stories By Adrian Bridgwater

Adrian Bridgwater is a freelance journalist and corporate content creation specialist focusing on cross platform software application development as well as all related aspects software engineering, project management and technology as a whole.

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