Flash and the PDF: Computing's Last Great and Now Endangered Monopolies

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Remember the 1990s when Microsoft and Intel dominated personal computing, long before there were smartphones or tablets or other things that are sort of like computers but not actually computers? Back then, as the chart Asymco's Horace Dediu created shows, WinTel computers dominated:

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In recent years, though, the dominance of the WinTel computing platform has collapsed. Apple's traditional computers and iOS devices combined with Android's smartphone success mean that, as often as not, people use an operating system and device that's outside the WinTel model.

Given the proliferation of computing gadgets and operating systems, many standards have collapsed. There are few near-monopolies left. Microsoft Office is everywhere, but increasingly unnecessary. Even mighty Google's search market share is only around 66 percent. 

But you know, there are two 90s-era products that continue to have ridiculous installed bases: Adobe's Flash and PDF.

According to Adobe, 99 percent of computers have Flash installed! Though that's no surprise given that it's the default way to display video on the web. As for the PDF, it's the ubiquitous document format that we all love to hate. In mature markets, roughly 90 percent of computers have a version of Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader installed, according to a late 2010 Adobe presentation. And PDF access is built into every smartphone I've seen, so we can safely assume that the prevalence of the PDF has not collapsed.

Despite the success of Flash and the PDF, some trends are militating against their dominance. First, Apple's decision to keep Flash off their iOS devices has blown a hole in the ubiquity of the format. Apple has also pushed the creation and adoption of HTML5 as a legitimate competitor to Flash to display video. And given the popularity of Apple's mobile devices, many sites now provide HTML5 support. Will HTML5 catch on or will Flash fight off its rival through the rise of non-Apple smartphones, as their projections hopefully suggest?

The mobile space, as we noted, is not as troubling for the PDF, but emerging markets might be where the company runs into problems. A full 50 percent of Chinese users and a quarter of Russian users don't have any PDF reader installed on their machines. As countries outside Adobe's homebase grow in importance, the company's stranglehold on document sharing could erode. Users now have access to a host of other cloud-based document sharing services like Google Docs, Slideshare, and Scribd, too. In other words, will the next-generation of document-makers be as dependent on the PDF to share their thoughts? Maybe not.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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