Corporate Surprise

Originally published 7/26/2002.

In the face of corporate scandals such as Enron, Global Crossing, and now WorldCom, very few companies seem to be getting good press. Let me explain to you why I have become an Adobe customer for life.

Adobe software is practically ubiquitous. Your computer more than likely has some Adobe software on it whether you realize it or not. Acrobat Reader – the file format that everyone uses to get across documents the way they want them to look across computers and platforms – comes installed with every new computer. If you don’t have it, you can get it for free, or chances are any software you install will also provide the Acrobat Reader for free.

Graphic artists use Photoshop, the gold standard in image manipulation. Quite frankly, there is nothing on the market that comes close to the type of sophistication that Adobe packs in that amazing program. It takes an entire series of college courses to learn what Photoshop can do, and even then it’s practically impossible to cover every single capability.

A few years back, Adobe bought out a small company called GoLive, which had created a software program called CyberStudio. CyberStudio was the first, true WYSIWYG web editor, and it made creating web pages so much easier than the typical hand-coding. It was a major leap forward, but by no means perfect.

For instance, it was buggy. When I started using CyberStudio (in version 2), crashes were a common pitfall and lost files were a common occurrence. Nevertheless, it allowed you to manage your entire site at a glance and “point-and-shoot” from pictures to their links and from page to page. It was so nice.

This was, though, back before the days of Dreamweaver, FrontPage, and the fancy catch-phrases of the time: XML, DHTML, XSLT, etc. The technology was moving so fast that it was hard to keep up with the bug fixes and new developments. The crashing was something that could be excused in the beginning days of web design, but wouldn’t be tolerated for long. Plus, CyberStudio only ran on the Mac.

This made sense, you see, because at the time if you wanted to do anything graphic (Windows 95 was the cutting edge in Microsoft technology at the time) the Mac was still the 80,000 lb gorilla. When CyberStudio hit version 3, though, Macromedia challenged it with the now very popular Dreamweaver.

Dreamweaver 1 was ugly. Butt-ugly. It had none of the elegance and sophistication that CyberStudio had, but it had one major advantage – it ran on Windows. The gauntlet thrown, the challenge was made.

Here’s where Adobe comes into play: Just as GoLive was preparing to beta its version 4, Adobe began negotiations to take over the company/software project. After all, GoLive was a one-trick pony. All it did was CyberStudio, and while it did it well, it certainly couldn’t compete with a company that had the resources such as Macromedia.

Adobe took over GoLive (the company) and renamed CyberStudio into GoLive (the software package). GoLive 4 was only slightly less buggy than 3, and there was much concern among the loyal customer base that somehow GoLive would lose the folksy feel that had grown up around the German-based company. At the time, Adobe wasn’t enjoying a major popularity boon with its customers, so there was some legitimate concern there. At the time, the best thing that could be said for Adobe was at least it wasn’t Quark, but then again, Quark makes Microsoft look absolutely philanthropic (in other words, that’s not saying much.)

Meanwhile, Macromedia was working diligently on increasing its user base, which wasn’t hard. The only serious competition to Dreamweaver on the Windows side was, after all, Frontpage, so it began racking up more and more users – including some Mac users who were in need of cross-platform development compatibility.

Adobe made good on its promise to bring GoLive to the Windows world, but it became clear that the advantage had been lost. With its own product – PageMill – languishing in the marketplace and Dreamweaver with a sizeable market share over GoLive, reaching the Windows audience wasn’t going to be easy.

Macromedia released Dreamweaver 4 at about the same time as Adobe launched GoLive 5, but it was pretty clear that neither product was ready for their respective hype. Dreamweaver had an ace-in-the hole, with tight integration with Allaire’s Cold Fusion, which Macromedia subsequently purchased. The Dreamweaver/Cold Fusion/Fireworks combo was a direct response to Microsoft’s FrontPage/IIS development-server platform, and had the added advantage of a graphics program (Fireworks) to create images specifically for the web. Add the ubiquitous Flash and suddenly Macromedia stood to be King of the Hill in short order.

Adobe tied GoLive to its stable of powerful workhorses, Illustrator, Photoshop, and a series of new graphics program devoted specifically for creating web-based graphics – ImageReady and ImageStyler. This latter program never made it beyond version 1, but was incorporated into a much more powerful application called LiveMotion (the supposed Flash-killer).

The one thing that it didn’t have, though, was access to the technology that would permit it to create dynamic, database-driven web sites with ease and grace. For years GoLive (even in its incarnation as CyberStudio) was able to handle WebObjects with ease, but there were several problems with that. First, at the time, WebObjects cost $50,000 for a license (it’s now much more sane). Second,
WebObjects only ran on Mac hardware. Third, and most significantly, the user base for WebObjects was so small as to be insignificant from a marketing (and profitability) point of view. What was needed were more options. Adobe recently unveiled its latest incarnation of GoLive with perhaps the most ambitious project one could imagine: bundling the software with open source packages.

Open Source is a way of creating, developing, maintaining and deploying software without a single person, company, or entity in charge. Plus, it’s also free. Microsoft hates this philosophy while simultaneously stealing code and ideas from Open Source Software, but that’s a topic for another article.

There are various Open Source projects that are in common usage on the Internet. Apache, for instance, is the most popular web server software in the world, and it’s free (Apache is the software that allows you to get web pages from another computer and make them look pretty on your screen). There are Open Source database programs too, such as MySQL and PostgreSQL. There are programming languages that are free as well, such as Python, Perl, and others. They cost nothing to use and no license fee to pay.

Software under an Open Source license comes with some pretty hefty drawbacks for the average user. For one thing, it’s truly DIY. There is no customer service, no tech support other than what you can find available on the web. To be fair, there is a lot of information about this software available, but it’s not located in any one centralized location, and the very nature of the beast means that it may very well not be the right documentation for how you’ve configured your own system.

Open Source Software is very, very sensitive to subtle changes. Silly things, like adding a space or a period (or omitting a space or a period) can ruin your whole week as you try to search for the culprit.

So, Adobe including Open Source into their distribution of Golive 6 is both brave and ambitious, to say the least. There are, conceivably, as many different setups for making things work as there are computers running the software.

So let’s suppose that you’re Adobe and you have to draw the line somewhere. You have a moral and ethical (not to mention financial and public relations) obligation to help your customers. However, you can’t be expected to troubleshoot some whacked-out configuration of Apache, Tomcat}}, Java and the database flavor of the month, *especially* since you have no control over any of those things – Apache and are created by a separate group of people, Java is owned by Sun Corporation, and there are so many possible database applications that it’s difficult to keep up.

Adobe made an executive decision, then, to only support the part of the software that they could control – Golive.

I bought Adobe GoLive 6 because I got sucked into the hype: “Create dynamic content, database-driven web sites quickly and easily!” Now, I’ve been working on creating web sites and making them dynamic for some time, but I’ve had to do it all by hand (or by spending hours upon hours of time trying to get Zope to work, but that too is another article). The lure of an easy way to make database-driven web sites was just too strong.

The damn thing wouldn’t even install.

What was worse was that it said that everything was installed properly. But it simply did not install. So, the first thing that I did was contact technical support. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Adobe didn’t provide support for the dynamic content portion of their software!

I was a bit peeved, to say the least. I sent a message to a support group for Golive content creators venting my frustration. The initial feedback I got was not very helpful, unfortunately. Several people told me that all I had to do was run the installer and I would be up and running with no problem. This began to get closer to a Marx Bros. routine than any serious attempt at help, because as I tried to explain I had installed the software as instructed without success, I was stunned when one of the responses expressed confusion because he didn’t understand why I was refusing to install the software.

I expressed frustration not only with the software, though, but also Adobe’s tech support. While I could understand, I wrote, why Adobe would have no desire, interest, or resources to provide support for the nearly infinite number of configurations I thought they should have at least provided support for their own installer. A couple of people on the list are actually Adobe employees, paid (I think) to monitor the list and provide assistance for poor shmucks like me. To their credit they managed to remain calm (much calmer than I) and tried to offer some help.

Unfortunately, though, the people on the list were only able to marginally help my problem. One person I’ve seen on the list for years is Adam Pratt, who happens to be a co-author of “GoLive in 24 Hours” – a very well-written book, by the way. He sent me a couple of documents he was working on to help with some of the frequent problems people may run into. His documentation was very helpful to get me to un-install what I had already done (the program installs not only GoLive, but also MySQL, Apache, Tomcat, PHP and JSP). That way I could at least start fresh.

Slowly but surely (by slowly I mean over a matter of days of trying non-stop to get it to work) I made progress in lurches and stalls. I found a problem caused by the name of the computer, and fixed it. That got me a little further and got me thinking that perhaps i could actually get this thing to work.

When I finally got a web page to access a database on my computer and present the data I nearly threw a party. I think I actually started to shake. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was working.

Or so I thought.

There were very strange things that were coming back mixed in with what was supposed to be there, so I sent another message to the Golive list to see if anyone knew what was going on. At around the same time I got an email from John Kranz, the product manager for Adobe Golive. He had apparently heard about the problems that I was having and wanted to help.

Wait. Huh?

This wasn’t some tech support person giving me a callback. This was – from what I understand – the Product Manager from Adobe. Within a matter of days he had me talking with two technical guys, Steve and Adam, an engineer and a quality assurance guy, and together we sat down to crunch the problem into bits. A third guy – Phil – happened to be passing in the hall and heard the conversation with me on the speaker phone. He joined in and added some well-placed advice.

We worked on this probably for a total of 5 or 6 hours over two days. The conversation was respectful (if a bit irreverent) and they were genuinely interested in fixing the problem. They offered possible ideas for fixing issues that weren’t related to Adobe’s software and even sent emails to follow-up and see how I was doing with my progress.

With their help I made tremendous progress finding out what was happening with the computer. There are still things that don’t work, but it turns out that it has to do with the way that Apple has configured OS X to work with UNIX-based applications, or MySQL’s inability to deal with permissions properly, or compilation problems with some java files – but these are not Adobe’s fault or problem. They’re mine, and I wouldn’t have even found out they existed without these guys help.

I know that I’ve thanked them for the help and will probably be speaking with them again once I try to get the fixed configuration files to work with Adobe Golive, but this doesn’t quite cover the sheer amazement that I feel regarding the whole situation. I thought that I was going to eventually simply have to use the parts of Adobe Golive that I already knew how to use and put off doing any kind of database web pages for the moment. It’s not a good solution, because I have people that I do work for that need that kind of thing. I’d rather them want to have me do it rather than someone else (it’s a pride thing as much as a financial thing).

The truth of the matter is that I cannot think of a single company – anywhere – that was proactive in trying to help a customer to such a degree. I got the distinct impression that these guys at Adobe were genuinely interested in solving the problem (sort of a puzzle that needed to be solved) as well as wanting to get me up and running. At no point in time was I ever treated like I was stupid (even though I readily confess I’m quite ignorant about some of the intricate workings of server software and database connectivity issues).

To be honest, I quite enjoyed working with them and feel somewhat disappointed that I’m back to working on this alone. Perhaps it’s the fact that as a small business / entrepreneur you don’t get the opportunity to work with other people on a regular basis, but the brief interaction I had with Adobe’s engineers reminded me of what it was like to work with true grown-ups, the people who actually get excited about what they do, an enthusiasm for the work and a genuine camaraderie. I tell you, it’s certainly the kind of company I would want to work for, and the kind of colleagues I’d want to have.

My experience with no other company – Apple included (actually, especially Apple) – has left me with such a feeling of satisfaction and loyalty. It almost makes me want to grab a J.D. Powers surveyor by the collar and make them interview me about the company. Almost.

One thing is definitely certain. Adobe has certainly leap-frogged to the top of my list of favorite companies. Now if Apple could take a serious look at some of their bone-headed customer service nightmares…