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Adobe, the world’s fourth-largest software company by stock market value, is about to go on the offensive.

Best known for its range of desktop software for graphic designers, as well as its Acrobat document reader and Flash video player, Adobe has been caught in the crosshairs of a growing number of Microsoft initiatives of late.

Later this year, though, the company plans to make available a new piece of software that will see it step firmly on to Microsoft’s turf.

“It’s truly revolutionary,” promises Bruce Chizen, chief executive officer. For Adobe, he adds, it will be one of the most important strategic moves in its 25-year history.

The “it” in question is called Apollo, a piece of software designed to bridge the worlds of internet and desktop computing.

Internet applications written for the Apollo platform will run outside a web browser on a PC, mobile phone or other device, including (with more limited functionality) when those devices are disconnected.

Ebay, for instance, is already preparing an Apollo-based application. Opened not through a browser but by clicking on an icon, like any other piece of desktop software, the Ebay application would be “fed” by information automatically from the web, for instance updating auction results or showing the latest new listings, while it would also keep some functionality when offline.

“We’re disrupting how web applications are delivered,” says Mr Chizen. For some of their most heavily used activities on the web, users will no longer have to work inside a browser, he adds.

By definition, that will make Apollo a direct challenge to Microsoft, which is trying to extend its own dominant PC software platform out to the internet, as well as on to devices other than the PC.

Adobe has even taken a leaf from Microsoft’s strategy book. While promising to make Apollo an open platform for other developers, it is planning to build some of its own applications as well, much as Microsoft established its Office business on top of Windows.

The first of these, unveiled in late April, is an Apollo-based media player to compete with Windows Media Player.

Picking a fight with Microsoft has never proved to be a smart move for software companies in the past. Adobe is counting on three factors in particular to tip the balance more in its favour as the battle shifts away from Microsoft’s home turf of PC-focused application development.

One is the near-ubiquity of its Flash player and Acrobat document reader on PCs, and their increasing use on other “client” devices. Those free pieces of software will serve as the launch pad for Apollo: users upgrading to new versions of Flash and Acrobat will be offered the new software free of charge as well.

“By the end of next year, we could have Apollo everywhere,” says Mr Chizen.

A second factor is Adobe’s core group of customers: the graphic designers who use its main desktop software products, along with the web developers who could use Apollo to extend the reach of applications developed for the online world.

Microsoft, whose technology tools are typically used by software developers with deeper technical skills, has set its own sights on these professionals. However, their familiarity with – and existing investment in – Adobe’s products gives it a head start.

The final potential asset is Adobe’s history. It has always straddled the PC and Mac worlds. With Flash, it is now reaching onto cellphones, games consoles and other devices.

It hopes to use this history as a “cross-platform” company to set itself apart from Microsoft.

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