Kevin Lynch, Adobe’s chief technology officer and senior vice president, Experience & Technology Organization, oversees Adobe’s experience design and core technology across business units. This role includes driving Adobe’s technology platform for designers and developers across desktops and devices, including Adobe Flash Player, PDF (Portable Document Format), Adobe Flex and Adobe AIR, the cross-operating system application runtime that bridges the computing power and data capabilities of the desktop with the real-time dynamic capabilities of the Web. Lynch sat down for an interview with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Emerging Technology conference in Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 25.
Q: What stands out to you about Adobe Creative Suite 4 (CS4), which you just announced the other day?
A: Well, the integration between all the tools is something that we did when we brought Macromedia and Adobe together. And with CS3 we were able to do some of that integration, but with CS4 we were able to dramatically move the integration along. The other thing is with Flash Player 10 we added a lot of new innovative expressiveness inside that release. That includes things like filter effects, so you can take the same language used in After Effects to do production time video effects — so you’re able to do that now live at runtime in the Flash Player. So that’s a really big change in the ability to make those effects interactive if you decide to change them later. But it’s a lot of tooling inside the Flash Player.
The other thing is we’ve integrated 3-D effects in Flash Player 10, so you can now do 3-D transformations and you can have a lot of great 3-D control, and across CS4 3-D is a pervasive element of the tooling. Even within Photoshop you can bring in a 3-D model now and you can actually paint in 3-D on the model. And that is amazing to see that work.
The other area is text. In Flash Player 10 we’ve put a whole new text engine in Flash. And that came from the engineers working on InDesign, so we’ve got decades of experience in managing text and layout and publishing, and we’ve applied all that experience to making the text engine in Flash extremely world class. You can do kerning and you have control over the line breaking and you can do flowing of text across columns and you can use any font you want. So in terms of rendering text on the screen, Flash is now a huge step ahead. And that’s supported across the tooling as well
Also what we’re doing is we’re starting to integrate services with the tooling. So in addition of features in the tools we are now integrating hosted services as part of the tools experience. So if you are using Creative Suite and using Dreamweaver and you want to understand how your Web page is going to actually look across browsers, you used to have to have all the different browsers on your computer and run Linux, Macintosh and Windows to test your pages. It was a pretty laborious process. So what we’re doing now is we’re hosting a browser testing solution or a way to simulate what the browsers look like. That’s an example of how we’re providing services with the tools and that’s a big shift in how we’re actually building our software now. We’re really embracing hosted services.
Another area is collaboration. People are starting to work together a lot more on the Web. So our tools are starting to support that collaboration — whether that’s the formats between the tools or working more seamlessly, which we’re doing with interactive graphics now. There’s a really seamless way to exchange that between the tools using something called FXG, which is an exchange format within the tools.
But also in terms of real-time collaboration…If you’re working with someone and you want to jump into a screen-sharing session with that person, we’ve got something called ConnectNow. So you can go from Photoshop and you can go collaborate with somebody else then you can share your screen and talk about it with live audio and video.
These are some of the areas we’re beginning to work on, but there’s a lot to CS4. It’s the biggest software release we’ve done in our history of 25 years in business.
Opening Up on Open Source
Q: What’s next on the open-source agenda for Adobe?
A: We’ve got a very active open-source effort right now. What we’ve been doing is open-sourcing Tamarin. We have published a bug database for Flash Player, so the development process is very open around these technologies. And with Flex, we’ve open-sourced Flex already, which also has an open bug database. And we’re getting to the point now where we can start taking contributions to the code for Flex. So we’re learning. It’s something that’s a transformation for us. And we’re working to embrace that as a great way to build software.
Q: What’s the plan for Flash going forward? Is there any thought of open-sourcing it?
A: We already open source the core of Flash, the virtual machine, Tamarin. Ten years ago we published the format that Flash uses called SWF. And for a while that format had a license agreement around it where we asked that people not make their own Flash players. And the goal of that was to maintain consistency of the runtime. We saw other runtimes out there like Java and others that came out and got fragmented. So with Flash over the last decade we’ve achieved consistent distribution around the Web. That is a pretty unique achievement around the Web. So we actually removed the license restriction this year from the SWF format. So anyone can go create anything they want around that format, including a player if they want to. We’re doing that to increase confidence in relying on Flash around the Web, especially as we’re moving to mobile devices. But our hope is that there won’t actually be a proliferation of many Flash players because that will really make it difficult for people to rely on the consistency that we’ve brought. So we’re going to keep focusing on making an incredible Flash player and innovate on that.
But we need to balance openness and consistency. So we’re very open about what goes into Flash Player, the bugs in Flash Player, the code and scripting engine in Flash, the format with Flash, the protocols with Flash. There is incredible openness around Flash. There’s a vibrant open-source community where there are dozens of open-source projects that are alive and active. You can go to osflash.org and you can see a lot of those there. So I think open source and Flash is very much a part of the agenda here and a part of the success of Flash today.
Now whether we would publish the entire Flash Player as open source is something that first of all would be somewhat challenging in that there are some codices in Flash that we don’t have the rights to all the source to. That’s one challenge with that. The other is that I think in terms of what’s best here for consistency of Flash on the Web, having multiple implementations and having forking and splintering of that code would be a big loss for the Web in terms of that consistency. So we’re really working to be a good steward of Flash and making sure that it runs across operating systems on the Web. And we really want to make sure that we don’t end up in a situation where it’s fragmented and loses the value that it has brought to the Web so far. That’s really what we’re working to do is to maintain the consistency, but we’re very inclusive of open source and involved in open source to enable that innovation of the open-source community to be part of the success story with Flash.
Q: Do you view Google’s Chrome browser as a potential threat to Adobe AIR because of Chrome’s nascent ability to run Web applications as desktop applications?
A: Chrome is a Web browser and I’m excited to see more innovation in the Web browser space. We see that as a great thing at Adobe. And the more browsers there are in the world the better it is for us. We make tools that work across browsers and we can solve some of the cross-browser compatibility stuff with tooling. So that helps us with making more interesting features. And also with technologies like Flash, we can make that work consistently across all these different things. So browser innovation is great.
Now the ability to run an application in Chrome and save a shortcut to the desktop, right now what that means is basically it’s an icon that launches you to a Web page and then you’re interacting with that application again. That’s not the same approach that we’re taking with AIR, where you can actually install a Web application on your computer and it runs whether you’re online or offline and you can access information you couldn’t with a Web application — so being able to access your local documents and edit them in a word-processing application or a rich editing application. That’s not possible inside the Web model with the sandbox. Doing things like notification on the screen and being able to drag and drop information between applications, these are things that AIR is enabling you to do on the computer that the Web browser doesn’t do.
And the other thing is that if someone wants to use a Web application installed on their computer then they really have to change Web browsers. If you like using Firefox or you like using Opera or Internet Explorer and you want to install a Web app on your computer you have to change browsers. And my view is you shouldn’t have to change browsers, you should be able to do that without having to make that switch. But I like that Chrome is out there and we’re working with the Chrome team to make sure Flash and PDF work really great.
What to Expect at Adobe Max
Q: Now that Google is using the WebKit engine and Adobe also is supporting it, do you think you’ll be working together more?
A: There’s a lot of momentum around using WebKit as a core technology for HTML. And we adopted that for AIR and we’re contributing to the open-source project. Nokia is active there, Google is, Apple is. So I really think there’s increasing momentum around that as a good implementation of HTML that is broadly applicable and works on mobile as well as on PCs.
Q: Some people said the recent decision by Ecma to abandon its ECMAScript 4.0 effort in lieu of an ECMAScript Harmony specification built off of ECMAScript 3.1 is a loss for Adobe. Was that the case?
A: I think with ECMAScript our aim there is to help advance the state of the art in scripting on the Web. And we’re doing that in Flash Player and deploying that around the Web. We really want to do that in a standard way, and we want to do it in a way that supports innovation and supports rapid innovation. And I think if you look at the way a lot of innovation on the Web has happened there have typically been some leading implementations…If you look at the image tag in Netscape. There was a time in HTML when there was no image tag, and Marc Andreessen at Netscape just decided to implement the image tag. And he put it in and deployed it and there was a lot of consternation about that, but over time that became the standard for implementing images over the Web. That’s normally how innovation has been working along with standards and so we’re following the same path of innovating, but looking to standardize the innovation so that we actually do have consistent deployment on the Web. So we’ll continue doing that. I think the amount of innovation that we were trying to do with ECMAScript 4 perhaps was too big of a leap for some and they wanted to see a more collaborative approach on that. So the standards process is a collaborative one where there are lots of points of view. And we’re happy to continue working in the process to advance ECMAScript. But we’re hoping that innovation can happen faster and that we can raise the level of scripting on the Web. So we’re going to continue innovating in Flash Player. We’re not removing features that we’ve already deployed because people are relying on them and we think they’re good. And we’ll keep developing it further. And at the same time we’ll keep working with the standards process.
Q: What can we expect to see at the Adobe Max conference in November?
A: At Max we’re going to do an update on our technologies and our road map. You’ll see discussion on what I see as the main vectors of innovation in the industry right now. There are three from what I see. One is the radical change in how people are interacting with the Internet using devices in addition to PCs. That is an incredible transformation. The number of devices already surpasses the number of PCs connected to the Internet. So that infrastructure already is deployed. So it’s a matter now of usage patterns shifting more to mobile devices rather than PCs. And in some cases, in emerging countries, people will completely skip the PC stage and go directly to mobile devices. We believe there’s going to be over a billion people who actually access the Internet using a mobile device without ever using a PC. So this is a radical change in how people are interacting. So that means a radical change in how we build content and applications, a change in how we access those things, and a real call to action around making a consistent experience across all these devices. Because if you try to access content and install an application across all these devices it’s very difficult today. It’s not a consistent experience, it’s not reliable, it’s very fragmented and there are lots of different operating systems, lots of different ways to deploy applications. So the device world is not where the PC world is right now in terms of reliability and consistency. So it needs to get there, especially with everyone moving there. So there’s a huge focus on Adobe’s part to help enable that consistency to happen. And we can’t do it ourselves. We’re working with others, such as carriers, device manufacturers and others. That’s the Open Screen Project. We’re working to make that a much better experience for users, in terms of browsing the Web with great fidelity and being able to install an application on your device and having it work. And we believe those applications should be built with Web technology such as HTML and Flash.
And that’s what we’ve done with AIR on PCs. AIR is a way to deploy an application across OSes. And that’s going great. We’ve had 35 million installs of AIR and we’re hoping for 100 million by the end of the year. Looks like we’re going to make it. And we’re working to bring that same technology to mobile devices. And I think that might be a trend toward a “mobile first” experience, which is really a reversal of how people create applications. Right now they create largely using large screens and PCs and think about creating stuff that will be displayed on large screens and PCs. And I think that need to change. In the conception of creating that content we need to think about how that will work in the constraints of a mobile device and then maybe how it will work on the big screen. That’s a reversal of how people are thinking and I think it will take a few years for it to happen. But at Max that’s one of the things we will encourage people to think about — to shift more to this mobile way of thinking and then consider PCs. And that will be a change to our tooling over time. Already we’re starting to do that with things like Device Central in Creative Suite 4 where you can visualize your work across devices. But there’s going to be a lot more to do there.
The second thing is what I call client and cloud computing, which is a change from applications running on a client, to really a blend of using processing power on the client and processing power across services on the cloud. And our approach there is… Some organizations are very cloud centric. Google for instance has the cloud in their soul. Others are very client centric still. I would put Microsoft in that camp. If you look at their revenue it’s largely client-oriented revenue; it’s Windows and Office. And that is something that, while they might talk about embracing the cloud and doing hosted services, I would say their soul is really still on the client.
So when we look at this from Adobe’s perspective we’re taking a balanced approach on cloud versus client. We’re enabling applications to be built that balance both the processing across the cloud and the client and treat those equally. And if you look at our ability to put functionality on the client, we’re one of the few companies that can update the client technology on the Web and add new capabilities such as for running applications, new video codices, new scripting engines… And we can deploy that and update a majority of the Web — up to 80 percent — in less than nine months now. And we can innovate on the cloud side.
Competition from Microsoft
Q: How do you innovate on the cloud side?
A: AIR, for example, is a combination of client processing and cloud. It is a way to deploy a Web application that runs on your local computer, but it integrates multiple services in a unified fashion. Right now inside browsers a Web application can really only talk back to the domain they came from. So it’s hard for a client side application on the Web today to actually integrate multiple services. You have to do that on the cloud side right now. And so what we’re doing is we’re providing access to cloud services from multiple vendors in one application on the client. So we’re able to enable direct access to multiple cloud services that might not be aware of each other.
Then we’re providing some hosted services ourselves. Like Share, which enables collaboration across documents; Connect, which is real-time audio/video collaboration; and Photoshop.com, which enables people to not only share photos but edit them.
The third thing is about social computing. The Internet has connected us all and that is changing how we do most things. So it’s no longer a solo experience. You are actually present with other people while you’re using applications. And you want to be able to do things like tag the applications, you want to benefit from the group knowledge, you want to be able to rate things, you want to communicate with people while you’re using those applications. So that social aspect of computing is a big change. And if applications don’t embrace that social aspect then you’re going to start to feel left out.
So those are the three things we’ll be talking about in depth at Max. Each of these is on the same scale as the introduction of the graphical user interface in the ’80s, but they’re all happening at the same time. So I think this is a highly disruptive time in the software space.
Q: Are you looking at other hosted services?
A: Yes. Across all the ways that we make software, we’re looking at what makes sense to deliver on the client side and what makes sense to deliver as a hosted service. If you look at Acrobat.com and Photoshop.com, which are two of our largest brands, you’ll see how we moved them to hosted services, and you’ll see more of that from us. And we’re doing it in an iterative open way with the community.
Q: How’s the competition with Microsoft been? You guys have been going in sort of the same direction on a few things.
A: Well, I would characterize it more as we’ve been going in an innovative direction for a long time at Adobe in terms of enabling people to express themselves with tools, get great clients out across the Web and get great server side experiences. And what I see now is Microsoft starting to target each of those areas that we continue to innovate in and that we’ve been leading on for decades. But that is more of a following position than an innovative position. If you look at Silverlight versus Flash, for example, we’ve been deploying Flash on the Web for a decade to great success. There is no other technology that’s as widely distributed as Flash today. And that’s only possible because it has provided a great benefit to people around the Web. The way Flash gets installed is it’s used on Web sites and people go to that Web page to see content and it says you need to have Flash Player to see this. That’s the dynamic. It’s a virtuous cycle. Getting that flywheel to spin is very difficult. So Flash is incredibly successful. And we haven’t seen any impact or lessening of Flash’s momentum so far. In fact, acceleration is what we’re seeing. Flash came from nowhere on video. By incorporating video in Flash Player across the Web, almost overnight we saw this incredible revolution and now over 90 percent of video streaming on the Web is actually in the Flash format.
But if you look at AIR, Microsoft has no solution in that space right now. While it’s competing with Flash via Silverlight, there is no competition for AIR right now from Microsoft. Except maybe from Windows, but that’s an operating system. And AIR runs across operating systems. So that’s kind of missing the point to say a particular OS is competing with AIR.
In tooling, Creative Suite 4 is just the best in the world at enabling people to express themselves. I would say Creative Suite is really light years ahead of where Microsoft is coming in with tooling. So we’re just going to keep focusing on our customers, working to innovate and not be distracted by how we might be pursued in some cases.
The Latest from Adobe Labs
Q: What are you doing to make rich Internet application (RIA) development easier?
A: We have an open-source framework called Flex and tooling called Flex Builder that is based on Eclipse. We’re also working on a new project that’s code-named Thermo. And Thermo is a way to enable designers to build rich Internet applications. And this is something that hasn’t been done before in terms of enabling designers to express themselves in building rich Internet apps. And that’s what Thermo does. You can actually take illustrations of an application that you might do with Photoshop or Illustrator or Fireworks… And many rich Internet applications today are designed that way, where you have somebody concept the application using something like Photoshop and you give the illustration to a developer and ask them to please make one of these. And it usually doesn’t come out exactly as the designer planned it. But the way you draw things and then code them today is a fragmented experience. So you can import assets into the development tools, but it doesn’t really give you a big head start.
So with Thermo we’re enabling you to take your visual assets that you’ve drawn in a creative tool like Photoshop and you can actually select the items that you drew in Photoshop and you can turn them into interactive items just by clicking on an item and saying “make this a button” or “make this a scroll bar.” And it will take the illustration and turn it into a working component. That’s really incredible. And it’s a huge innovation to enable designers to create the interactivity and the logic of the application by converting their artwork into components and then wiring them together. And you’re able to connect those components through drag-and-drop. So without writing any code, you’re able to create the interactivity of your application. Then underneath the covers there, Flex is being used to express all that content and the interactivity. So if you want to dive in and write code yourself or start working with the framework at the source level, you can. But it’s really aimed at enabling designers without them having to even know about the code.
Q: What’s hot coming out of Adobe Labs?
A: We’re working on a bunch of areas. One is, in terms of expressiveness, we’re continuing to push forward the ways you can express yourself, whether that be through media, on the Web or in print. Some of this is in CS4, but some of it is still being worked on. For example, resizing images. There’s something called scene carving that is now incorporated into our tools. And that came from some research that was going on and shown a bit on labs. And that allows you to re-size an image. And that not just to make an image smaller, it will remove parts of the image that aren’t as important as other parts. So you can re-size something and it will drop out some background scenery and keep the people in the picture. That’s something we’re starting to deploy, but there’s still more research going on there. For example, we’re looking at how we can apply that to video.
There’s another project in the area of image recognition — can we help people to actually identify faces and scenes in a video, or the same with static photos in order to help people index those things better and search for them more easily. There’s a lot of graphics and video research that goes on in Adobe. And we have a research group, called the Advanced Technology Lab, which works in conjunction with research in academia.
Also in terms of the Web runtime there’s research going on in performance and virtual machines, just-in-time compilers, etc. We’ve done some leading-edge work on that in a just-in-time compiler called Tamarin. We’ve deployed a just-in-time compiler in Flash Player 9 awhile ago and that was the first just-in-time compiler for Web scripting being deployed. And we’re now seeing that technology being embraced by others. And that’s going to make the Web programming model go further. We’re contributing our work in an open way so others can advance it. We’re working with Mozilla on that, for instance. That’s incorporated in what they call Screaming Monkey.
Another area we’re doing research in is how we can better do hosted services.
Q: Are you considering anything like Microsoft’s Live Mesh?
A: Well, what we’re seeing is people using hosted services increasingly. And we’re really betting on the Web. And that already has a great infrastructure for doing distributed computing and Web services. And so whether there’s a need for an alternate way of doing that I’m not sure. But we’re really focused on the Web programming model and not so much on OS-specific models.