Adobe is a company everybody likes. Okay, with the possible exception of Steve Jobs, that is. But really: Adobe is probably the largest vendor in the IT industry that doesn’t compete head-on with any of the other giants. In fact, cooperation seems to be somehow bred into their genes, which is why the Adobe managers I met with recently in Paris seemed to be exceptionally nice.

But that may change.

Take Sydney Sloan, Director, Adobe’s director of product marketing & operations who is a typical charming Canadian (except that she’s an expat from the States) and whom I must thank for a wonderful new acronym, “CEM”, which stands for “Customer Experience Management”, which is what people at Adobe are very excited about right now. The Paris meeting featured lots of customer cases where companies used tools like Flash, Flex and Air to build standard business applications that offer a compelling “feely/touchy” type of user experience in contrast with the usual drab, utilitarian kind of GUI that make most business apps about as exciting as a bowl of Wheetabix.

  • Impuls,  a major German insurance agency, showcased a rather neat online sales application called “Live Agent Meeting” which enables a company rep to walk the customer through the process of signing up for a new insurance contract online. The client can even “sign” the contract by typing in a password that he or she gets by “scratching” the appropriate field, much like they would a lottery ticket. Digital signage it ain’t, but hey, if it works (in certain restricted use cases), then don’t fix it!
  • Bureau Veritas, a Belgian certification, auditing and testing specialist that was founded back in 1828 to provide shipping underwriters up-to-date information on vessels and crews, demonstrated a well-designed field reporting system based on the Adobe LifeCycle product that transfers their entire workflow to the web.
  • France Telecom (or "Orange", as they now call themselves) showed a set of widgets and apps based mainly on Flash and Air aimed transforming the customer experience and thus the image of the company from stogy telephone operator to cool media trendsetter (witness “Voxcards”, a new Facebook app that enables users to festoon their friends’ or their own walls with talking postcards; “Its silly, it's totally useless, and its running like hell”, said France Telecom's Patrick Chanso.
While all this was fun to watch and talk about, it wasn’t exactly daring to go where none have gone before. In fact, most of these business applications are simply standard functionality with a snazzy frontend. And that, it seems, it the whole point. "The Internet is moving from content to content built around applications", said Steve van Herck, VP of EMEA Sales, and Adobe wants to be at the head of that parade.

Which could prove to be a big problem. Adobe, after all, has always been the proverbial Nice Guy; a rather peripheral company that provides neat tools beloved by creative types, but hardly the stuff which real, red-blooded businesspeople want to deal with every day. Adobe is simply not seen as a serious rival by the other IT firms.

But now Adobe is blowing the charge to enter the market for business applications, which may very well prove a wake-up call for giant corporations with which Adobe hitherto enjoyed some very cozy relationships indeed. The Adobe Reader, after all, runs on almost every computer in the world, and Flash enjoys a de facto monopoly - 70% of web games and 75% of web videos run on Flash, boasts Ricky Liversidge, Adobe’s Flash guru who was in Paris to talk about the company’s latest release, Flash 10.x.

Of course, not everyone loves Adobe. There’s Steve Jobs, for instance, who really hates Flash which he considers unsafe, unreliable and – sin of sins! – “proprietary” (as fine a case of the pot calling the kettle black as I ever heard). But at least until now, Apple is the only major IT company on record to fling down the gauntlet.

Existing for decades in a virtually non-confrontational biotope, Adobe may have to develop some calluses if it wants to go up against the Big Boys of business software. That won’t be easy, though. “Competition simply isn’t part of our corporate DNA”, Sydney Sloan told me in the taxi on the way to the airport.  Maybe Adobe should consider some genetic modifications.

Adobe’s mission statement may be to “revolutionize how the world engages with ideas and information”, but they are also in the process of changing the way they are seen by the competition. In that case, learning to fight may be a survival skill that many in the company have yet to master.