Does Mac OS X Rest On Adobe?

The last time I tackled the relationship between Adobe Systems and Apple Computer's next-generation operating system in an opinion piece was four years ago, and the scars still haven't quite healed.

The last time I tackled the relationship between Adobe Systems and Apple Computers next-generation operating system in an opinion piece was four years ago, and the scars still havent quite healed.

It was spring 1997, and CEO Gil Amelios Apple had recently purchased NeXT Software; NeXTs Unix-based OpenStep OS had beaten out competitors such as BeOS to form the core of Apples "modern" OS, code-named Rhapsody. (NeXT founder Steve Jobs also figured in the deal, but thats a whole other story.)

Rhapsody offered plenty of promise, including a kernel-centered architecture and a screen-imaging technology based on Adobes Display PostScript. The biggest unknown: the willingness of leading third-party software houses to switch their Mac efforts over to developing for this new OS.

Ever since the NeXT acquisition was announced, Adobe had been conspicuously silent about its plans for Rhapsody or its opinion of its potential. I encouraged my colleagues at MacWEEK to field an editorial noting Adobes pivotal role as the undisputed heavyweight champion of Mac graphics software and a company whose support - or lack thereof - could make or break the new OS. Adobe had earned its role as graphics kingmaker in any Mac platform shift, I opined; by the same token, its customers deserved to know whether Adobe was committed to Rhapsody.

Within a couple of days of the editorials publication, Id been invited to drive down from San Francisco to Adobes San Jose headquarters for a chat with the then-chief of marketing. When I produced a reporters notebook, he instructed me to put it away. "There wont be any interview," he said ominously.

I was then subjected to a 20-minute dressing down on the topic of Apples tenuous place in the market and MacWEEKs perceived habit of - ahem! - relieving itself on companies like Adobe. Considering that wed asked a simple question and given Adobe full props in the process, I was a trifle startled - and when this gentleman kicked me out of his office just in time for Friday-afternoon rush-hour traffic back to the city, Id pretty well concluded that Adobe was reluctant to discuss its intentions toward Rhapsody.

The more things change ...

Fast forward four years: Under Jobs, Apple cashiered its original Rhapsody scheme in favor of a plan that let third parties tune their current Mac apps to a set of "Carbon" APIs optimized for the new OS, now dubbed Mac OS X. The Mac maker has regained much of its economic health even if it hasnt shed its niche status. In March 2001, Apple finally delivered the first commercial version of Mac OS X, and Jobs confidently predicted a full complement of native apps would hit the shelves over the summer.

And Im still waiting for a tangible demonstration of Adobes plans for Mac OS X.

To be sure, the software house has made it clear that it understands Mac OS X is the future of the platform, and its unambiguous that its core graphics applications will ultimately wend their way onto the new OS.

The company has even set aside a special corner of its Web site to enumerate (in very general terms) its plans to port its applications to Mac OS X. While Adobe reveals that it doesnt plan to offer native support for Mac OS X in the next version of FrameMaker (its book-length layout application), the company indicates that it "currently plans to offer native support for Mac OS X in the next major release" of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, just to name a few.

Which brings me back to the list of questions Adobes marketing veep made me put away back in 1997: What advantages will Mac OS X provide to Adobes graphics applications? What hurdles will Adobe have to overcome to move its core technologies over to the new OS? And will Carbonized Adobe applications offer new reasons for graphics vets to stand by their Macs?

The answers still arent forthcoming.

To be fair, Adobe has released one Carbonized package as of this writing: Version 5.0 of Acrobat reader already runs native on Mac OS X, but since native PDF is part of Mac OS X, a Carbonized version of Adobes own PDF reader is hardly a major innovation for the platform.

Meanwhile, Adobe just announced that Version 7.0 of PageMaker -- its former desktop publishing flagship before the advent of InDesign and the app that fired the first shot in the DTP revolution -- wont be Carbonized for Mac OS X. (Adobe told me that the lack of Carbon support in PageMaker was simply a question of timing and said a future rev will bring the business-publishing package up to speed with Mac OS X.)

Whatever answers Adobe provides, theyll be crucial to the general usefulness of Mac OS X to its hard core of graphics pros and definitive when it comes to determining Adobes place in the brave new world of Mac computing.

Since the early 90s, Photoshop has been the killer graphics app on the Mac; as myriad Jobs keynote showcases demonstrate, its also been the de rigeur showcase for such Mac technologies as Velocity Engine acceleration and PowerPC multiprocessing. The Mac OS X debut of this package alone will be a definitive moment for the new OS Quartz imaging model and high-performance features.

Other graphics developers arent waiting for Adobe to steal a march. Macromedia this month rolled out a Carbonized version of FreeHand, Adobe Illustrators perennial competitor for vector graphics, and Corel Corp. is reportedly about to go public with a Mac OS X beta of the Bryce 3D package it picked up from MetaCreations Corp.

Will Adobe products still be keynote showstoppers at the Macworld Expos of 2002 and beyond? Im eager for the answers, and I might even brave another traffic jam on Highway 280 to get them.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.