For Adobe, a tough lesson in (open-source) diplomacy

August 3, 2007: 7:30 PM ET

This summer, Adobe Systems (ADBE) landed itself in a rather uncomfortable role.

Bully.

The reason: Adobe placed a little link in its popular Acrobat digital document software allowing users to automatically send print jobs to the closest FedEx-Kinko's (FDX) location. The Adobe deal with FedEx-Kinko's – which amounts to a business-funneling advertisement – sparked an uproar among mom-and-pop print shops, who felt betrayed. It seemed as if Adobe, a software supplier they had come to trust, was working against them from the inside, sending customers to a hated competitor.

Adobe backs down

On Wednesday, a chastened Adobe backed down. John Loiacono, the senior vice president of the company's Creative Solutions unit, apologized on his blog:

Adobe announced today that we will release an update of Adobe Reader and Acrobat Professional which will remove the "Send to FedEx Kinko's" button from those products. The update will be released in about 10 weeks. … We made a commitment to the print industry to address the concerns they raised about the FedEx deal. We made a commitment to all our customers to deliver the best, most secure product possible. We plan to deliver on both those commitments, and it takes time.

The brouhaha had to be painful for Adobe, a community-friendly company that likes to think of itself as a kinder, gentler outfit than arch-rival Microsoft (MSFT). But here Adobe was, accused of using its overwhelming position in PDF software to make money at the expense of smaller companies – the very sort of behavior that earned Microsoft a bad rap in Silicon Valley. (Making matters worse, the businesses affected were local print shops; Adobe co-founder Chuck Geschke once told me that his father and grandfather both worked as a printers.)

And so Adobe joins the ranks of companies that have recently angered their user base and emerged with scars. Digg, the social news ranking site, faced a similar backlash earlier this year when it removed the key for cracking security on HD DVD content. (Digg also backed down.) EBay causes a ruckus every time it raises the fees its members pay.

The open-source connection

In this case, Adobe is working to reverse the damage, and is setting up an advisory group of printers to help ensure it doesn't repeat the mistake.

But many customers are still angry, and Adobe would do well to remember this incident as it seeks to fend off competition from Microsoft and others on the Web, along its whole line of products. Your user community is sometimes your greatest asset, and it's wise to let them help you build the future.

In other words, the lesson here may be that open-source strategy is no longer just for programmers. It's for the marketing folks, too.

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