Adobe's story retold

In 1982, an ambitious start-up set out to build high-end publishing computers. The hardware never happened, but the startup-- Adobe Systems Inc. --morphed into a software company that has made its mark with design and graphics products. This week, the founders and current chief executive recalled their journey--and peered into the future.

Twenty years ago, those founders--current co-chair John Warnock and Chuck Geschke--were veterans of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The technology lab was fabled for its knack at developing revolutionary inventions and then failing to commercialize them. They recalled the experience at a panel hosted by Silicon Valley's Churchill Club.

"We were working at PARC on a whole variety of things relating to publishing," remembered Geschke. "The typical reaction there was, 'Oh my God, we can't talk about this publicly or someone else will do it before we do...We said, 'we've gotta get out of here."

So the two started Adobe. "We had written this business plan, and others had written the same business plan--and none lasted more than a few years," Geschke said. "We were going to build computers and sell them directly to business customers. And [if we had] we would have been dust on the road to Silicon Valley."

Instead, the company found its initial success with PostScript, the rendering technology inside Apple's LaserWriter printers. Along with Aldus's PageMaker (a company and product Adobe acquired in 1994), PostScript was instrumental in launching the desktop publishing revolution.

And according to Warnock, "The early adopters of PostScript were the worst publishers on the planet. They abused typography, and used all 35 fonts on every page. When you democratize things, this happens--but I've always had faith that cream rises to the top."

Onto the Desktop

Adobe followed PostScript with an assortment of Mac and PC software products, including Illustrator, Photoshop, Premiere, After Effects, Acrobat. They and others eventually made Adobe the world's second-largest publisher of shrink-wrapped software. Inevitably, the company faced competition from the largest publisher--Microsoft, of course--which launched such products as PhotoDraw (an Illustrator/Photoshop hybrid) and Microsoft Reader (an Acrobat Reader rival).

But Adobe remains one of the few software developers that competed effectively with the Redmond juggernaut. The secret of its success? Innovation, maintained Warnock. "Whenever Microsoft has gone after us, they've followed where we've already been," contended Warnock. "They've never tried to outinvent us."

Panel moderator Paul Saffo noted that Adobe's inventiveness has sometimes led to products that seemed to outstrip the capabilities of existing technology. When Photoshop debuted in 1990, for instance, desktop PCs lacked the hardware muscle needed for image editing.

Geschke didn't disagree. "If you're a hunter--I'm not, but I've been told this by friends who are--you don't shoot where the duck is, you shoot where he will be. From the very start, we planned technology that would capture the imagination of users before the infrastructure was there."

Adobe Acrobatics

Acrobat, which shipped in 1993, was another ahead-of-its-time product. Based on PostScript technology, the document publisher and reader preserved documents' look and feel no matter what platform they were viewed on. "I thought everybody would understand this immediately," Warnock said.

But Acrobat didn't take off until the Web explosion a few years later--and until Adobe decided to give the Acrobat Reader away for free.

Today, the Acrobat Reader sits on 450 million PCs, and its pervasiveness could play a key role in Adobe's future.

Part of that future involves server software and other enterprise-oriented products, said Bruce Chizen, the company's CEO. "Companies have spent an enormous amount of money getting infrastructure in shape, but most are still shuffling paper. Everybody happens to have this thing called Acrobat Reader. Wouldn't it be great if we could help people by leveraging this great platform?"

On the consumer side, Chizen pointed to digital photography as a trend the company will continue to mine, perhaps with a utility that would help shutterbugs organize their electronic snapshots.

Whatever the future holds, all three executives expressed optimism--and a belief that we're only at the beginning of the PC revolution. "You look at every single program today, and unless you're asleep, you can figure out 15 ways to make it better, easier, and more useful," said Warnock.

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