By Matt Liotta and Chris Preimesberger

Macromedia started out as a developer of animation products for the CD-ROM world only to find that market being quickly replaced by the burgeoning World Wide Web. The company’s product line was quickly changed to attack this new market. Two of the products it introduced, Dreamweaver and Flash, became the most widely used products in their respective categories.

More recently, Macromedia acquired Allaire, which brought with it three important products: HomeSite, ColdFusion, and JRun. HomeSite, like Dreamweaver, was the most widely used product in its category, and ColdFusion and JRun were both pioneers in the Web application world that had strong followings. These five products effectively guaranteed Macromedia a spot on almost every Web developer’s desktop and, in some cases, their servers as well.

No one can deny that Macromedia is a significant player in the Web industry and has the attention of many Web developers. The question is whether Macromedia has climbed to the top only to fall because the company is forgetting the very people who got it there. Let’s look at the some of Macromedia’s offerings and its status in the development world.

J2EE proved to be a stiff competitor
While the Flash player was having unparalleled success, sales of Flash and Dreamweaver were down. At the same time, the industry was standardizing on J2EE, and ColdFusion was suffering as a result. Furthermore, JRun wasn’t competing that well. This all left Macromedia with a fat payroll and suffering sales. What they needed was a way to make ColdFusion competitive, a way to generate revenue from Flash, and, of course, a way to cut costs. The solution the company saw was the MX product line.

Their first step was to rebuild ColdFusion as an application on top of J2EE. This allowed Macromedia to maintain a single application server (JRun) instead of two, as well as make ColdFusion competitive with the rest of the J2EE market. Next, they extended Flash to become a complete GUI toolkit, allowing it to emerge from its days as a simple animation plug-in. So Flash fulfilled the undelivered promise of Java applets; a cross-platform, browser-based GUI platform.

Finally, they built support for Web services into Flash, ColdFusion, and JRun. With support for Web services, Flash developers could build GUIs for Web applications without worrying about back-end integration. Further, ColdFusion and Java developers could build back-end services with Flash as their presentation tier instead of HTML. Macromedia coined the term Rich Internet Application for applications, based on the integration of Flash with a back-end based on Web services.

Macromedia is back in the black now, but apparently without much help from their new MX product line, which to date has generated only lackluster sales. The Flash and ColdFusion communities are abuzz with excitement over the new capabilities of these products. However, all is still not right at the top for Macromedia.

Where the problems lie
The Flash community—dominated by designers—is having a tough time adapting to the object-oriented approach of developing with Flash MX components. This leads to a realization that while the new capabilities of Flash are quite exciting, you have to be an engineer to make use of them. Worse, the ColdFusion community is having a hard time accepting ColdFusion MX. The promised backward compatibility is only superficially there; the syntax is backward compatible, but the behavior often is not. Also, to make use of Web services and integrate with Flash requires an understanding of object-oriented concepts most ColdFusion developers have been able to avoid. Even Macromedia’s own employees who have object-oriented backgrounds often can be seen squabbling on various public mailing lists with those who don’t.

Also of note is Dreamweaver MX, which replaced not only the previous version of Dreamweaver, but also HomeSite. Much to the chagrin of Macromedia, neither former Dreamweaver nor HomeSite users have been excited by the latest offering. The complaints range from its being buggy, to being slow, to being just too much. What is clear is that people who formerly bought Dreamweaver for its Web site design functionality aren’t too interested in a back-end development IDE, while the people who formerly bought HomeSite for its plain and simple tag-based text editing aren’t too happy with the overhead of a full-on Web site design tool.

A person might also ask what Macromedia’s true focus is these days. From all indications, it is Flash, but many might argue it should be ColdFusion, because Flash’s revenue-generating potential is significantly smaller. Their latest developer convention also shows a bias toward designers, because most of the sessions aren’t meant for developers.

Maybe it is simply that Allaire spent a great deal of energy on the ColdFusion community, and things just aren’t the same with Macromedia. It’s hard to say, because there does seem to be more community participation from Macromedia, but it doesn’t seem focused or well organized. In fact, one could find oneself both praised and criticized by different members of the company. Some have even gone as far as penalizing people who ask hard questions publicly (e.g., about the removal of beta access).

Is it too late for the company to change direction?
The MX product line holds great potential, but its managers need to better take into account what the users are saying. We are excited by the promise of the MX product line, but we want good products and a company committed to them. That company could be Macromedia, or it could be the next company that wants a shot at the top. Will Macromedia’s struggle to the top ultimately be for nothing? Only Macromedia can decide.