Can Apple and Adobe Play Nice?

New Mac operating system offers a lukewarm welcome to Adobe products

The ongoing tension between Apple and Adobe seemed to flare up again Thursday with the launch of the new Mac operating system, OS X Lion—although the situation wasn't quite as bad as it initially appeared.

In the past, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been openly antagonistic towards Flash, which is Adobe's format for online media, including videos and games. Apple refused to support Flash on the iPhone or the iPad, and it left Flash off the MacBook Air (though in the latter case, users could still install Flash on their own). Jobs even published a letter titled "Thoughts on Flash" where he suggested that the technology is "no longer necessary".

Sniping between executives at both companies seemed to die down recently, but the Lion launch provided a new opportunity for friction. Adobe published a list of "known issues" between Lion and Adobe products, and tech news site VentureBeat, which spotted the list, described the incompatibility as a declaration of war. Perhaps most noteworthy was the suggestion that Flash videos on YouTube were taxing computers' CPUs, which Adobe said could "possibly" mean that Apple had disabled hardware acceleration for Flash.

Except, well, that turned out to be wrong. An Adobe spokesman later told Adweek via email that Lion offers "the same support for Flash hardware video acceleration" as the last Mac operating system, Snow Leopard. So why the confusion? Adobe acknowledged that its earlier suggestion was "incorrect and based on tests with a pre-release version of Mac OS X Lion that related to only one particular Mac GPU configuration."

"We continue to work closely with Apple to provide Flash Player users with a high quality experience on Mac computers," the spokesman added.

Now, Adobe might claim that it's working closely with Apple, but today's about-face suggests that's  not entirely true. 

And there are other compatibility issues. For example, older versions of Flash Builder and Flash Catalyst (two of Adobe's tools for creating Flash content) don't work with Lion. Adobe says it "does not intend to update" those versions to make them work.  On the other hand, the latest versions of Builder and Catalyst do work in Lion, but Adobe says there are "issues": "We do not recommend that these customers upgrade to Mac OS X 10.7." That's a big deal for Adobe, since (as Jobs suggested in his letter) the company's Creative Suite products have an unusually strong following among Mac users.

Why do the two companies seem to have so much trouble working together? Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond suggested via email that it's about control.

"I think the struggle comes from the fact that each is trying to establish 'strategic control points' in the developer ecosystem," he said. Specifically, Adobe products like Flash Builder make it possible for developers to build apps that run across multiple smartphone platforms, not just the iPhone. "This turns them from collaborators into competitors."

Apple did not respond to requests for comment.