Opinion: Adobe's DNA is part of Apple

Long before Microsoft Office, there was the Macintosh Office, which was Apple’s 1985 attempt to increase the nascent Mac’s marketability as a business machine (and which was kicked off by the much-hated Lemmings commercial). The Mac Office was a concept, not a product, but it was built around a new plug-and-play networking architecture called AppleTalk, and a breakthrough product called the LaserWriter. This laser printer, which was unlike anything else on the market, could turn anyone into a publisher, all thanks to an embedded technology called PostScript, developed by a small company in California called Adobe Systems.

My business partner and I became charter members of the Macintosh Office when we picked up the very first LaserWriter to arrive in the Boston area. At $7,000, it was the key investment for our company and crucial for our new publication, MacInTouch. I can still remember the LaserWriter’s low hum as it started to print, and the crisp, beautiful type (Times Roman and Helvetica—mundane today, but then a revelation) that poured out upon its pages. While I loved using my Mac, it was the LaserWriter that really set me on the path to where I am today—and I’m not alone in believing that it was a pivotal product in Apple’s first successful push with the Mac.

The Mac’s graphical interface and products like Aldus’s PageMaker were key components, but Adobe’s PostScript was the glue that held it all together. If Steve Jobs—who pushed Apple to make it happen—hadn’t seen the wisdom and the power of PostScript joined with a laser printer, Apple certainly would not have become as relevant as it did to the graphics industry. (My favorite Steve Jobs moment is still the day in 1985 when he essentially called Hewlett-Packard brain-dead for not putting PostScript into its laser printers.)

PostScript, which was really a programming language used to describe the geometry of a page, outgrew the quickly discarded Macintosh Office and helped drive the desktop publishing revolution. In many ways, Adobe was much like the early Apple—the company was innovative, flexible and fast.

But PostScript was the kindling to grow Adobe’s business, not the endgame. Adobe wisely used the royalties from licensing PostScript to printer manufacturers to expand into typography, illustration, digital imaging, video, and Web design. And, through it all, from the late 1980s through the 1990s, Apple and Adobe seemed like partners against the cold, business-oriented Microsoft/Intel hegemony. Adobe grew hugely, first by purchasing Aldus, and then by branching out into video. And while Adobe pushed its software onto Windows, it always felt as though the Mac was Adobe’s true home. Certainly among designers, graphic artists and photographers—Adobe’s core demographic—the Mac, and Adobe’s software, were the standard.

When Apple hit its rough patch in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t the fanboys who kept Apple alive, it was the graphics community: prepress operators, illustrators, publishers, photographers and others who relied upon their Macs to get their jobs done. The changeover from Mac OS 9 to OS X was one that shook the heart of that community, and a large part of it stayed away until Photoshop, Acrobat, and Illustrator (and QuarkXPress, to be fair) made the transition to the new OS.

The move to Mac OS X and with it, Apple’s ever-increasing number of software titles, brought about an uneasy change in the dynamic between Apple and Adobe. Where the two had once seemed to be partners, they now act more like adversaries and competitors, which of course they now are.

The biggest schism was created by Apple’s move into the video software market, both with iMovie and Final Cut Pro. Adobe saw this as an encroachment into its territory, and retaliated by making Premiere a Windows-only product (a decision changed only this year ). And, while iPhoto would never be seen as a competitor to Photoshop, Aperture certainly raised the stakes in the evolution of the digital imaging market, and Adobe fired back with a year-long public beta of its next-generation imaging project, Photoshop Lightroom, hoping to forestall some of Aperture’s momentum. And, over the past few years, I have often heard undercurrents of nastiness from people at both companies. Lately, however, those sentiments seem to have been replaced by earnest competitiveness, which is the way it really should be.

With this newfound competition, it’s hard to tell right now how it will all turn out in the end, but the funny thing is that Apple and Adobe are as intertwined today as they were when the LaserWriter debuted. PostScript is still found at the core of the Mac, a subset of Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF), which is embedded in the architecture of Mac OS X. Yes, 25 years after its founding, Adobe’s DNA is still part of Apple. In my mind, this is a good thing.

[ Rick LePage is Macworld ’s editor-at-large and a contributor to the Creative Notes blog. ]

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