Adobe Unveils Their Edge

The Web is an ever-changing place. What’s hip this week is forgotten by the next. The half life of an Internet meme feels like it’s less than five minutes. But we love the Web because of that, don’t we? It’s not just the content of the Web that ebbs and flows, the technologies that underpin it change just as quickly. While the fights for the victor may last longer, and wide-sweeping changes don’t exactly happen overnight, they do eventually happen.

We’re at another turning point in the history of the Web. Like the Browser Wars and the Web Standards Movements before them, mobile devices have taken the world by storm, and completely changed the landscape of the Web. There’s a responsive movement in the web design community to make sure the Web works its best everywhere the Web is available. And yet there’s been a rather large elephant in the room: Flash. Flash isn’t available on iOS. It’s barely available on Android. It’s a divisive influence on the Web.

But it’s Adobe’s Golden Boy, isn’t it? Their cash cow, the key piece of their secret plot for world domination. Well, it might’ve been. But then they announced their latest labs project, an HTML5 animation tool. This is called Edge. And it’s different.

What’s Edge

Right now, Edge is an experiment. Its a first step, a toe in the water, whatever metaphor you’d like to choose. It’s rough, and isn’t even close to being the type of prime-time product Adobe and their Creative Suite are known for. But it’s an interesting preview of where Adobe’s ambitions lie.

The simplest way to explain what Edge is today – Flash with web standards. Now, that’s a bit of a loaded statement, though technically true. Edge doesn’t have anything to do with video on the web. That’s something that’s still firmly in the realm of Flash as far as Adobe’s concerned. But looking at the other things that Flash is used for, like immersive web experiences and integrated animations, that’s the neighborhood that Edge is moving into.

What this Adobe Labs preview is focused on is Edge’s drawing and animations tools. Think those image slideshows, or lovely Flash ads, or any sort of animating content on a website. That’s Edge’s first step. Animating content. Just take a look at one of the sample projects from Adobe Labs, or their new HTML5 showcase site, The Expressive Web, to see where they’re heading with this technology.

So, all of this “limited” functionality might sound a bit like an excuse. Why’s Adobe even talking about Edge right now? Why are they releasing a “preview” of what the software’s “going to be”? Why don’t they just finish the thing and ship it? Well, Adobe’s apps are large and complex. They’re designed for professionals, as in people who are paid to use their software. They aren’t built overnight.

But Edge is Adobe’s entrance into a fight that’s erupted overnight. Let me explain.

Explain This Rivalry One More Time

January 2007. Apple unveils the iPhone. It’s the moment in time when the ill-will and bad blood between Apple and Adobe became poised to reach its pinnacle. At that point in time Flash was essentially a ubiquitous part of the web. Its plugin was available on every big name platform, and content produced in it – from simple web videos to immersive “web experiences” – were effectively viewable on 99% of the world’s web browsers. But here arrives iOS, a booming platform that Adobe is locked out of.

Apple’s public response was rather vague and unspecific, until April of 2010, when Mr. Steve Jobs published an article titled “Thoughts on Flash”. Apple’s opinion was clear: there would be no Flash on iOS. iOS was continuing to grow, and as it did, Adobe’s issue was growing. Discontent’s been boiling in the web community toward Flash since the beginning of the Web Standards movement. One of the last proprietary pieces to survive that crusade, the writing’s been on the wall for Flash for many years now. Except now a large and dearly beloved company was putting their collective foot down too.

Adobe isn’t a stupid company. And they aren’t a one-trick pony. They’re in the business of selling tools to creative professionals, not just Flash. It looked like it was time to hedge their bets.

And here we are with Adobe Edge. Without needing to write a line of code you can create complex animations that are viewable in every leading browser, on every major platform.

Now, it’s not really my place in this article to delve deep into my feelings on machine-generated code. Code that hasn’t been written by human hands, code that’s messy, complicated. That’s the code that Adobe Edge spits out as a final product. Does it “validate”? Sure, it validates. Is it the pinnacle of quality programmatic craftsmanship? Not even close.

In my mind, that begs the question then:

What The Future Holds

I must admit, that’s kind of a loaded question. None of us truly knows what the future holds, and it’s an imprecise act to speculate on the future. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

Adobe has a lot of brand value attached to its name. Professionals in many creative fields use their products regularly, and trust the directions Adobe takes those products in. If Adobe puts its full might behind Edge, then it’s going to have the best possible start it can. The same people who’ve latched onto Flash before, will dive head-first into Edge. Because in a lot of ways it is Flash, only a little newer, a little more modern.

It outputs code that matches the web standards so many have fought so hard to see become ubiquitous. So in a lot of ways, if Adobe continues down this road, those people can call it a victory. But I worry about how the web industry as a whole will greet this new creation of Adobe’s.

At its current stage it can be little more than a hobby, a curiosity for many. It doesn’t have the power and flexibility that Flash has. And it isn’t the sort of thing to really capture the attention of the web designers already hand-coding their HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript tricks today. I don’t feel the current version of Edge offers that crowd anything new.

But it could in time. Adobe has a real opportunity here, and I hope they realize it. They get to start from scratch. To create the tool that those with little or no “programming” experience will use to create advanced websites in the future. It’s Adobe’s responsibility that they set those people up with the best chance for success. That Edge outputs the cleanest, highest quality code possible. That the tools remain powerful, yet intuitive.

Adobe sets the bar. I hope they take this new challenge thrust upon them seriously, and they rise to the occasion. I think they’re capable of it. I think they’re in a better position than any other company to give the web development community the greatest tool to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Adobe’s talking the talk. Only time will tell if they really can walk the walk. Here’s to innovation.

Editor’s Note: Another interesting app to keep an eye on is Hype, a Mac-only HTML5 animation design app built by former Apple employees. It looks like a serious competator to Adobe’s web design tools, and with the number of apps like Pixelmator that are competing strong with Adobe, the underdogs are putting the fire under Adobe’s feet. If that helps Flash disappear from the web quicker, that’d be the best thing for the web since IE6 usage dropped below 50%!