Parting Thoughts

10 Years Later: Thoughts on PhotoTablet/Fotiva/Adobe

Posted 4 December 2009

The First Two Years: Conception

It was 10 years ago last week that the idea for PhotoTablet came to me—an Internet tablet that takes care of your pictures. The day that name came to mind, I bought the domain and started writing a business plan.

Four months later, I had quit my job, had $2 million in venture funding, and was building a team.

Another four months later, we realized that the tablet idea was not going to work (as a business), and we transformed into Fotiva—a PC software company.

Within a year, we were in discussions with Adobe about selling the business to them. We had the product nearly ready to take to market in the fall of 2001, but with venture funding in a serious drought, we didn’t have a lot of options.

Two years after conception of the idea, we completed the sale of the company to Adobe. In retrospect, it seems an incredibly short period, though it didn’t feel that way at the time.

Last month, Adobe laid off the last of the original Fotiva engineering team, marking the end of an era.

My Stint at Adobe

A year after the acquisition, the software we built at Fotiva debuted as Photoshop Album. After two more years, it was rolled into Photoshop Elements as the Organizer, where it lives on today in version 8.

In my first year at Adobe, I was focused on getting Fotiva’s software turned into a shipping product. After a year in product management, I moved into engineering, managing a small research team and doing technology acquisitions.

For five years, I tried to find or create a role at Adobe that I enjoyed, and I can’t say I ever really succeeded. Although there were some great times and lots of good people, my entrepreneurial spirit and Adobe’s big-company culture did not mesh well. In the fall of 2006, I left Adobe to focus on the Web—something that I found almost impossible to do at Adobe.

Adobe and the Web

From the start, the PhotoTablet/Fotiva vision was for software and an Internet service working in conjunction to deliver the complete product. After the acquisition, however, Adobe senior management was totally disinterested in the online aspect. After pushing on this issue on and off for a few years, I eventually got support for building an online photo service. A dozen people worked on it for nine months—and then Adobe decided not to fund its rollout.

Another year later, I tried again, and once again saw projects started and then canceled before shipping anything. About the time I left three years ago, yet another online effort was underway; I left because I had no confidence in the way it was being approached. This project too ended without shipping anything.

Finally, in 2008, Adobe delivered Aside from the “third time’s a charm” aspect, I think the reason Adobe was finally able to launch a photo service was that the driving force was the creation of a Flex showcase. Unfortunately, it was too late to make much of an impact.

Adobe had plenty of engineering folks with a passion for building web services for photography, and a few products have made it to market. But the heavy-weight process and infrastructure, combined with top management that is often unsupportive of web initiatives, has kept Adobe from being a significant player in the online photo world.

Team Shifts

As part of this web initiative that began in 2006, the Organizer code base that had its roots in Fotiva’s code was transferred to a team in India for future development. What remained of the engineering team that I had built, and which Adobe acquired, was redirected to work on

In some ways, this was a great opportunity for the team, but it also meant a loss of continuity in the Organizer development. The people who conceived and built multiple versions of the product were no longer responsible for it. The results have been predictably uninspiring, though whether this is due to the transfer to India or to an overall reduction in resources is hard to tell.

I no longer use Photoshop Elements Organizer, after leading its creation and importing more than 70,000 pictures. I just doesn’t perform well enough, and Lightroom is closer to my interests. (I use iPhoto for video clips, since Lightroom frustratingly doesn’t support them, but that’s another story.)

The Annual Purge

More years than not (since 2000), Adobe has conducted an annual purge of employees toward the end of the year. The past two years, this purge has been especially deep, driven no doubt by the sagging worldwide economy.

I understand the need to realign resources when strategies change. But the frequency and vigor with which Adobe rearranges and lays off people leaves a lot of casualties. Having worked there for five or ten years, produced consistently good work, and supported the company through previous transitions is not enough to keep your job when management shuffles priorities again.

I don’t want to get into the debate about the merits of offshore development, but it is a fact that almost all of the Fotiva engineers were eventually laid off, and their work moved to India.

The Power of a Small Company

Aside from my five years at Adobe, I’ve mostly run small companies. After leaving Adobe three years ago and starting Webvanta a year later, I’ve been struck again by the incredible efficiency advantage small companies have.

Two or three people, juggling half-a-dozen roles, can get more done than a team of ten at a big company like Adobe. The absence of the innovation antibodies that are an epidemic at Adobe is a huge boost, not to mention the elimination of most meetings.

But the most important difference of all is having the people with the ideas and passion be the same people making strategic decisions.