Adobe Fights The Wrong Battle

or, Choice Starts At Home

Typically, when I have written, presented, or discussed an issue I like to move on with my life. Adobe, however, won’t get their shit together which is making it hard for me to do so. Hopefully this will be the last thing I’ll have to say about the Flash Kerfuffle of 2010.

The tension over Flash support on iPhone OS is as old as the iPhone—which was announced in January 2007—and I suspect it goes a little bit further back than that. Someone at Adobe knew about the iPhone before it was announced, and they knew that there was no Flash support. Which presents us with two possibilities.

How Did This Happen?

The first is that Steve Jobs decided long before January 2007 that Flash would never come to the iPhone. This is certainly possible—I suspect the relationship between Apple and Adobe is still tainted by the painfully long time it took Adobe ship a native Mac OS X version of Photoshop. If you survived that transition as a Mac user you probably remember, as I do, waiting for Classic to launch when you started Photoshop in the morning while every single other app in your dock—including Microsoft Office—was native. That was a long time ago in computer years, but Steve never forgets.

The second possibility is that Steve realized sometime before 2007 that Flash wouldn’t be coming to iPhone 1.0 and he’d have to see what panned out after that. But what panned out was nothing. Steve has never been tight-lipped or esoteric in his criticism and his frustration with Flash and Adobe has really “gone public” in the last year, but it’s sure not news to Adobe. I’m inclined to believe that Steve “presented his concerns” to Adobe as early as 2006, and Adobe has done nothing about it, probably figuring Steve would come around eventually—after all, it’s Flash!

But we’re hot on the subject of corporate arrogance here, and despite the fact that Macs account for around 5-7% of computers sold, about 50% of Adobe’s customers are Mac users. Sure, Adobe would be crazy to ignore Steve’s “feedback,” and Shantanu Narayen (Adobe’s CEO) having worked at Apple should know better, but Adobe’s treatment of their customer base over the same period of time tells us a lot about what’s going on there.

Over the last 4 years, Adobe has been adding “edge features” to the Creative Suite applications in an attempt to expand the appeal of a product that has essentially reached market saturation and lost the hearts and minds of an alarming portion of their customer base. I don’t mean to belittle the work of Adobe Engineers; they’re the Good Guys. The folks who (for example) rearrange the Tools Palette with every release but continue to scatter commands that operate on a document layer into menus not called Layer, of which there is a perfectly good one, are the Bad Guys. The engineering at Adobe is fine, the strategy and tactics are mediocre.

Ever since Steve demoed the iPhone to Adobe—whether that was before MWSF2007 or not—and expressed his concerns about bringing Flash to the iPhone, Adobe has had the option of building a tight plugin that was both stable and efficient on the iPhone. And, God help ‘em, maybe they could do the same thing on the Mac.

But they haven’t. On either platform. We’ve seen four versions of the Flash Player in that period of time. They’ve been too busy working on marginally useful features in Creative Suite to fix existing problems.

But The Kids Love Us

So here we are, with a shitty Flash Plugin on the Mac, no Flash at all on iPhone OS and a situation that’s a little out of sorts. Steve dictates a letter to Executive Communications who runs it by Legal and has some kid post it to the website. Adobe’s response is to get Narayen on a PR blitz, create a new section of their website with cherry-picked pro-Flash stats and take out full page ads in major publications to accuse Apple of hating our freedom? Not only is that crazy, it shows that Adobe—the public face anyway—doesn’t actually know who’s on their team and who isn’t.

Consumers don’t care what percentage of websites use Flash and I don’t believe they choose a Smartphone because of Flash—God knows it hasn’t stopped anyone yet. Sure, consumers want “Their Sites” to work on their devices. If they find a site that doesn’t work, are they going to throw away their Smartphone?

This is only about the Flash Player to the extent that it is about Adobe’s ability to sell copies of Creative Suite to designers and publishers for authoring content. It’s the tools, not the player that matter. The people that Adobe needs to be courting here are—sadly—the same ones they’re been alienating for the last 4 years: the designers who feel like Adobe has been over-pricing Creative Suite, under-delivering on features, and ignoring their feedback.

If those designers loved Flash, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. If Flash truly made up a majority of web experiences, the iPhone would support it or it would have no traction as a mobile internet device. If the market was with Adobe, then Netflix, ABC, et. al. wouldn’t be building iPad apps to cater to such a small percentage of web users. They’d be using Flash. Hell, Netflix doesn’t even use Flash now, and they’re the only major player in streaming video with paying customers.

Which Choice Do You ♥ Again?

What boggles my mind is that Adobe wants to sell CS5 and there is more opportunity now than there ever was to get designers hooked on Flash (the tool). The demand for engaging web experiences has never been higher and HTML 5 is the most powerful and most complicated version ever. If Flash could do for interactivity what Photoshop does for still images—build something once and export in your format of choice—designers and corporations would snatch up CS5 like free waffles. But you can’t do that. If you build a site, you’re exporting it in Flash/SWF, not HTML5/Canvas.

If Adobe really ♥ choice, maybe they should give their customers that choice instead of trying to pin their shortcomings and lack of vision on Apple and on the market.

Flash: First the iPhone, soon the Desktop?

Or: Why I’d like to lose Flash Websites without losing Flash

I’m not shy about my disdain for Flash sites. I block and selectively load Flash content with Click2Flash, seen below.

Click2Flash blocking a SWF

I don’t have a categoric objection to the existence of Flash or the Flash Player, but Steve Jobs is right: Flash crashes a lot, uses far more processing power than is appropriate, and most Flash sites not only suck, but break web conventions and treat the user like a trained monkey (“Skip Intro”). There are Flash sites and sites with Flash content that I load and use, but it does feel like I’m putting up with Flash rather than choosing it.

I understand why people build stuff in Flash. It does have its advantages: It’s a fairly rapid development tool accessible for designers and can be used to create interactive multimedia experiences that are adequately consistent across browsers and (desktop) platforms.

When Flash site development started in earnest with Flash 4 (featuring ActionScript 1.0, the least buggy version of ActionScript 1.0 ever released) around 2000, the web looked a mess. Certainly, cross-browser design is no cakewalk today, but if you ever spent a hour tracking down a Netscape rendering bug in your web application only to find it was a result of an errant whitespace character–which according to spec has no affect on how code is parsed–then you know why so many people (myself included) were building UIs in Flash around the turn of the millennium. Cross browser development sucked and it sucked hard.

Furthermore, you simply could not do many of the things in HTML that you could do in Flash. Motion? Nope. Streaming Audio? Nope. Interactivity? Nope. Decent typography? Nope. Video? Nope, but that didn’t “officially” work in Flash either.

So, like any tool worth a damn, Flash showed us a slice of what we could build. It sparked a lot of thinking about what we could do on the web, and it turned out that the coolest shit we could do is shit that HTML and CSS couldn’t do. The tradeoff was that plugin version checking and installation was a nightmare for users. But, hey, we were making omelets.

Now that it’s 2010 and we have HTML5 we can do some pretty cool shit without plug ins. Video? Hell yes! Streaming Audio? Hell yes! Vector graphics? Hell Yes! Decent Typography? Hell–err, well not really, but it is a lot better than it used to be (to the nerd who objected to that statement: use CSS make me a properly kerned headline set in Goudy that I can view in Firefox. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

But look at the time table. HTML 5 is the first version to really try and tackle these features and it took 10 years to get here. Sure, “here” is an improvement, but there’s still a lot of things we’ve been doing in print for hundreds of years that we still can’t do on the web. And it’s 2010. Twenty…fucking…ten.

So yes, I block Flash. Yes, I’m relieved that it’s not on the iPhone and iPad. Yes, I wish we could just be done with it. Moreover I wish that we had effective tools to craft great experiences on the web regardless of technology.

Adobe and Apple are limited only by their own determination to build or block whatever technology they want. HTML/XHTML and CSS are standards coddled, defended, sent to band camp and kept back in 4th grade by the W3C until–from historical data–they are finally implemented reliably across browsers only after the Proposed Recommendation for the next version of the standard has been finalized.

Proprietary technology requiring an overpriced desktop app to create may be a horrible substitute for an open standard created by an “impartial” standards body, but it does provide competition–after a fashion–and if we loose it I’m not sure we could count on the W3C or browser builders to deliver forward-looking tools and features that will allow creative people to do amazing things on the web.

It’s a wicked problem for which I have no suitable solution.

The Difference of With

One word can make all the difference, they say. For example: “Luke I’m not your Father” or “I coulda been a pretender.” But one word makes a huge difference in whether or not I want to talk to a photographer I’ve met. The word With.

When one strikes up a conversation with an photographer–amateurs like myself particularly–they’ll typically ask one of two questions:

What do you shoot with?

These folks will talk to you about photography. And talk and talk. About why you should shoot Canon instead of Nikon, about why their $300 Sigma lens is actually better than the $2500 L-series lens, about how they read on Strobist about Vivitar Flashes, but they don’t actually have any, but they heard they’re really good. Gear heads. They exist in every field. Talking gear isn’t bad, but if you’re obsessing about gear, you’re not obsessing about taking photographs.

I don’t shun Gear Heads, but I’m just not interested in talking about the new Mark III Xvi 12 with hypersync and HD auto-trim. Everyone has Their Thing. That’s why Gear Heads won’t find me too interesting, and why they need each other.

What do you shoot?

This is the photographer that I want to talk with. They’re willing to talk about their choice of subject, about why photography is exciting, about their motivation, about passion. We’ll talk technique, about learning something new. We’ll talk a little business and ways we’re both hoping to turn our passion into a little cash.

But mostly, we’ll talk about making photographs. We encourage each other, challenge each other and inspire each other. That is the difference of With.

Process or People

It’s always fun to watch new managers and small businesses discover a business trend. As long as you can watch from the outside.

It’s popularity peaked a few years back, but the E-Myth series is popping up in my circles again. In the E-Myth books, Michael Gerber argues that new businesses fail because people who are good at a thing–painting, writing, plumbing, whatever–start a business and figure they can be successful because they’re good at the thing they do. He says these folks need to be good at business if they want to succeed. I won’t dispute that point, but he goes on to argue (and I’m going to over-simplify here) the way to do that is to set up processes and systematized workflows to run the business in such a way that the entrepreneur is freed of responsibility for daily operations.

Which I guess makes sense if you’re running a factory.

Process is Good…

I’m not contra-process. I’m a process guy. Dismantling and rebuilding a proposed policy or process so I can create an exhaustively thorough and detailed flowchart is something I often bemoan having a natural affinity and mental compulsion for doing. Processes make a lot of things easier, but like love, processes cuts both ways.

…But Not Great

If you want to experience first hand why this matters, go to your local downtown and find a locally owned, non-franchise business. Spend 30 minutes asking paying customers why they chose the small business over the chain stores.

They sure as hell won’t say process.

They’ll probably say something like customer service, small town feel, or unique offerings. You know, the things small businesses can do that most big companies can’t.

Processes Work…

Now perform the same experiment at McDonalds and you’ll get process-centric answers: convenience, low cost, speed. You know, the things that make big companies big.

…But Will They Work For You?

If your business is built of processes, you can hire unskilled workers, pay lower wages, have more control and get reliable, measurable output. But you’ll be hiring robots, not people.

If you want people capable of using their judgement, creativity and innovative thinking, then you need to work on your culture and values. Scrap the processes.

Don’t Incentivize Your Employees, Reward Them

Small businesses have the most to gain and the most to lose in the marketplace of talent because one employee makes up a much larger portion of the team. Without the infrastructure to buffer the failings of an underachiever, small businesses can live or die on just a few hires.

So why do managers in small businesses give so little thought to how they reward (and thereby attract) talent? My experience is that these managers think they lack the resources for competitive compensation, but what they really lack is imagination.

Talented employees don’t need a complicated “Compensation and Incentivisation Program.” They need rewards. Done properly, this gives you the tools to attract great talent and to develop your employees. Fortunately for managers in small businesses, one only needs a few kinds of tools:

Salary, Wages, Benefits

This is what you give employees for showing up on time, working as part of the team and not screwing anything up terribly. Sadly, this is the beginning and end of most “Compensation and Incentivisation” packages. Since it’s the baseline, it only encourages baseline behavior.

Performance-based Rewards

Most fast-talking, book selling “management gurus” like to call this “incentivizing” employees. I chose not to call it that because the ideas and culture that have grown up around the term are limiting. Performance-based rewards are useful for any behavior you can measure and track responsibly. Sales Commissions are a good example, but unfortunately most businesses stop there.

Example

A common performance-based metric in service and repair businesses is turnaround or time-to-completion. The faster you repair a customer’s car, computer, or appliance the happier the customer is. In scope-limited, repetitive tasks, employees can be rewarded for getting faster. In variable-scope tasks employees can be rewarded for the degree to which they surpass a productivity baseline.

Warning

Performance-based rewards can be powerful, but consider what you measure very carefully because quantitative metrics will always sacrifice a qualitative human factor. You need to balance this with other rewards or corporate culture.

Warning Example

Because shorter support calls mean shorter wait times, nearly every call center on earth tracks and rewards call times (that is to say, they fire reps with long times). But fast Reps are likely to be terse to the point of curtness and focused on closing the call quickly, not on empathy or customer experience.

Targeted Rewards

Encourage positive behaviors that cannot be easily or responsibly measured. That may seem challenging, but it is by far the easiest reward to implement. Pick out a handful of positive behaviors or positive outcomes and publicly share competitions or rewards for them. You won’t be able to find these behaviors in your timekeeping or business process systems, you have to actually work with your employees and customers to find them. Anything that you’ve had to repeat in staff meetings is a candidate for a targeted reward.

Example

Errors in pricing and informational signage are embarrassing and potentially costly for a retail business. Reward employees for pointing out errors, discrepancies, or out-of-date information. Don’t give away the farm, but make sure your rewards scale with the value of the behavior.

Spontaneous Rewards

Encourage positive behaviors or outcomes that you have not stated–or even decided upon–in advance. This requires constant vigilance on the part of managers, but can pay off in a big way. I’ve noticed that spontaneous rewards are most effective when they’re frequent, small, and non-monetary: two movie tickets are often more appreciated than a $20 bill.

Spontaneous rewards also have a valuable ripple effect: they encourage employees to look for and practice new types of behaviors–often subconsciously–in hopes of earning a reward. To capitalize on this you must recognize behavior regularly, or you’ll lose momentum and instead encourage dissatisfaction among employees: they will think, and rightly so, that your rewards were all lip service.

Example

An employee stops in the parking lot to pick up trash in front of your building on the way in. It demonstrates that the employee cares about the business: that it is clean and well-perceived. A targeted reward for this would be unmanageable or dangerous (encouraging coordinated littering and cleaning) but the positive impact on your culture and business as a whole is worth recognizing and the attitude behind it worth cultivating.

Intentional, Profitable Culture

Here are a handful of questions that just about any business could answer:

  1. How did you choose your location?
  2. How do you set your pricing?
  3. What is your marketing strategy?
  4. How do you set staffing levels?
  5. How do you set your compensation packages?
  6. How are you different from your competition?
  7. How did you settle on your technology infrastructure?

Here is one question very few businesses can answer:

  1. How does your corporate culture contribute to your profitability?

Actually, that was a little disingenuous. A good many businesses can answer that question, but the answer is “It doesn’t.” Not because culture and profitability are unrelated, but because their relationship has been given no thought.

If you could make employees more productive by removing workplace conflict and confusion about expectations, would you do it? If your employees looked forward to Monday morning, would they hit the ground running and work harder? If employees enjoyed their jobs, would customer service improve? If your employees were excited about your direction as a company, would your customers notice?

If you employ human beings, then your corporate culture is important. It’s also hard. Harder than any of the items on the list above because people are much more complicated than a technology infrastructure. But if you don’t leave your location, pricing, or marketing to chance, why would you leave your culture to chance?

Which Came First?

The Mission-less Statement or Mission-less Business?

I’ve mentioned worthless mission statements in the past, but this week I had the extreme misfortune of encountering a wholly unremarkable business with the following “mission statement:”

Our Foremost Mission is to Empower our Customers with Solutions through Trust and Knowledge and Provide Experience above and Beyond Expectations.

Capitalization aside, is it any wonder that there was nothing about this company worth remembering? Is this a product company or service company? Business, Education, Government or Consumer focused? In what industry?

This mission-less statement feels like the kind of thing a business should say, it contains all appropriate buzzwords, and is properly paced. But it says nothing; it’s worse than nothing. It obscures all meaning, feigning communication with meaningless business-speak.

There is a chicken and egg question here: do wholly unremarkable businesses write wholly unremarkable mission statements or do wholly unremarkable mission statements create wholly unremarkable businesses?

The answer, of course, is “Yes.” Or, to be for a moment less cynical, “They correlate, of course.” If a business doesn’t have a succinct purpose is it any wonder that it grows amorphous, fumbling in the dark?

Why All This Business?

I’ve been surprised to find myself thinking so much about business lately.

Having so many irons in the fire has given me the opportunity not only to reflect on their similarities and differences, but also reflect on the work I have done in the past. Since I have been in leadership since before leaving university, there is lots to think about.

So I have developed (or under-developed?) a number of high-minded theories about leadership, management, corporate culture, customer service and the like.

Lest anyone reading this think that I believe myself irreproachable, these theories have been developed as much by those things I look back on as failures as those I look back on as successes. Many of the ideals I will sharing here are not always the experiences my past employees have had with me, and that’s precisely the reason I will continue to write them.

Getting distance has helped make sense of these experiences, and hopefully this will help someone else as well.

Recognition and the Mistake of Promotion

I am perpetually amazed how many businesses make the mistake of promoting people who are good at their job.

I’ll cross reference the Peter Principle here if you want a slightly different take on the issue.

It seems that somehow we’ve run out of ways to tell our employees that they’re kicking ass and we really appreciate it. We toss them an assistant management title and and force them to do busywork instead of the stuff they’re so good at. What kind of recognition is that?

Promoting people is the fastest way to get them doing something they’re not cut out for. Don’t promote because someone is doing a good job, or because they’re been with you for a long time.

When to Promote

They’re Already Doing It

This is a no-brainer. If you have a team member who is already coordinating work, helping people, doing ad-hoc training, taking responsibility, then you’re got someone who’s not at the right level in your organization. But, you did already recognize this potential in your employee, didn’t you?

You’ve Prepared Them

An employee shouldn’t be put into leadership cold. Once you’ve recognized the potential and cultivated those skills and given the employee the opportunity to grow, let her go. This is a little harder than the first situation; they’ll need more active development from you. But then, that’s your job, isn’t it?

They’re a Better Coach Than Pitcher

Sorry to use a sports metaphor, but in a small group you probably have a “generalist” who, as the team grows, will be replaced with several specialists. In many businesses, this is the natural order of things. And a generalist is typically a much better leader and decision maker than a specialist.

They’ll be Better at Your Job Than You Are

This is the hardest to admit. But if you’re a leader, you’ll do it.

What are the alternatives?

Stay Flat

The Chicken/Egg dilemma of promotion within a business is that if you have “middle management” positions, you’ll fill them. But if you feel compelled to promote people, you’ll also create positions you don’t have. Both are mistakes. Mandate the maximum depth of your organization and do not violate it.

Just Pay Them More

The best reason to promote someone is because you want to recognize the awesome work they’re doing. But if you promote an Engineer to a leadership position, you may be promoting that Engineer right out of a core skillset. If your Superstar isn’t a leader, don’t force it. More money is always welcome recognition.

Perks

Perks are the most underutilized tools in a manager’s tool chest. In most cases perks are more meaningful and cost effective than any other solution. Vehicle allowances, a (nice) company laptop, more vacation days, and so on.

The Most Important Thing?

Be Genuine

If your organization is bloated and inertial none of this will work for you; everyone knows that the plaques and certificates you issue are not heartfelt. If your culture does not value people, you’re already losing this battle. Which means you’re also losing your best people.

New Site, New Direction

It has been a long time since I posted, and not without reason. I am changing my editorial tack with this site, and that change is reflected in the new layout. If you’re using a feed reader, click through.

As you can see, things are simpler and I removed a lot of crap from the site. And I also turned off comments.

New Direction

I had been struggling to post new content because I was trying to write about topics for which I had no definitive answers and publishing articles–even on a personal blog–with no conclusion bothered me. I was liberated from this self-imposed editorial tyranny when I realized that this was not in keeping with the intellectual curiosity that was driving me to blog

Like every human, I believe I am right nearly all the time and have made my mind up about a good many things. However, there are many issues so complicated, deep, and mysterious that I can never hope to fully understand. Demanding that I have answers before blogging means I could never write a word about them.

So I am giving myself permission to explore these topics here in the same way I do in my private thoughts: questioning. You will increasingly read here articles that are inconclusive, frustrated, confused and confusing; rather than having conclusions for everything I write, I will have mostly questions.

New Tumblr

I signed up for a Tumblog Tumbleblog Tumbr. The thinking here is that short (and funny, sarcastic, mean) thoughts will go on twitter, fuller thoughts will go on Tumblr and longer thoughts will go here. If you want to follow everything I think that is fit to post, follow all three. If you just want to laugh, follow me on twitter.

New Commentlessness

I first enabled comments on my blog because I figured I had to and certainly, since I had, legions of readers would leave pithy comments on my blog. This didn’t work out, and while wondering what to do about it, I heard Merlin Mann say that whether you have comments or not, you need to know why. Which I knew deep down I but didn’t have the cojones to step up to the plate. Why did I turn off comments right when I’m going to start writing articles that are mostly questions? And tackling more difficult topics in more detail? Wouldn’t people be more apt to comment?

Who cares? Seriously.

I do hope that people read what I write here, and I do value ideas and discussion, but posting a paragraph on a webpage is pretty meaningless when you think about it.

If the topics I choose, or what I write about them is interesting, compelling or thought-provoking, then I don’t want you to fill out a web form. I want you to get together with friends, open some Gin, or Wine, or Beer, or Water, and talk about the things that captured your attention. Comments don’t change anything. People do.