Opinion: Adobe's world
Imagine a world without Photoshop or PDF. Heck, without digital fonts and desktop publishing and the ability to print graphics on a desktop printer. Imagine a world without Adobe.
As Adobe Systems celebrates it 25th anniversary, it’s important to recognize how much Adobe is responsible for the way we communicate today. Back in 1982, two enterprising and talented computer scientists left Xerox PARC to form their own company. John Warnock and Chuck Geschke had been working on a computer language that would enable the printing of smooth detailed graphics, liberating graphic designers from X-Acto knives and Rubylith. (It’s a testament to Adobe’s impact to think how few designers today even know what Rubylith is!) They called the company Adobe Systems, named after a creek running through Warnock’s backyard, and set up shop first in a spare bedroom and then in a small building in Mountain View, Calif.
Three years later, in 1985, desktop publishing was unleashed when Warnock and Geschke teamed up with Steve Jobs to create a printer based on that computer language—the Apple LaserWriter with Adobe PostScript— and that took advantage of the Mac’s graphic interface. Paul Brainerd of Aldus then contributed PageMaker page-layout software that demonstrated the LaserWriter’s smarts. The rest, as they say, is history.
These days, publishing with a personal computer is a given. It’s so entrenched in our professional culture that the term “desktop publishing” is quaint and outdated. Certainly the designers and production artists at CondeNast or The New York Times do not refer to what they do as “desktop publishing.” After Adobe acquired Aldus in 1994, PageMaker quietly slipped away and InDesign stepped in, supplanting QuarkXPress in the hearts and minds of designers.
But even as the novelty of desktop publishing faded, Adobe has continued to push the boundaries of graphic communication. The 1990s saw Adobe struggle to define a technology that was called variously Camelot, Carousel, and then Acrobat. Now the Acrobat file format PDF is one of the most widely distributed document types on the planet.
Then there’s Photoshop. Developed as a diversion from writing a doctoral thesis, Photoshop progressed from being a software scanning utility to a digital art-creation tool to a print production powerhouse to an indispensable part of the digital photography workflow. It’s been said that every professional image that’s produced for commercial advertising, fashion photography, and magazine publishing has been touched by Photoshop. I believe it. And I suspect that soon the same will be said about pictures shot by amateur and hobbyist photographers.
Adobe has had its missteps, too. (PageMill anyone?) A company doesn’t become the second-largest software application company in the world without testing and abandoning new concepts. But overall, Adobe has had more successes than failures, and we are the beneficiaries of that record of excellence.
It is personally amazing to me that Warnock and Geschke have not been afforded the same kind of public adulation as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. No profiles in The New Yorker (although I’d like to write one, hint hint). No cover story in The New York Times Magazine . No documentary on PBS. But it is also the unassuming personalities of these men that keeps them out of the glare of the media they helped to create.
I had the opportunity to spend considerable time with Warnock and Geschke when I wrote a book to commemorate the company’s 20th anniversary. Writing Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story and interviewing these two visionaries was without a doubt the highlight of my professional career.
And if I were to update that book today, I’d talk to the next generation of innovators at the helm of Adobe, people like Bruce Chizen and Shantanu Narayan who have pushed the company even further along its trajectory of success. I’d also have to add several chapters about the merger of Adobe and Macromedia, a union that makes Adobe a formidable presence in print, online, in film, on television, and in your cell phone.
It would be a challenge to encompass all that information in one book, but I’d be up for it. I can think of no more delightful task. I might even call it a love story.
[ Pamela Pfiffner is the Adobe Press Editor at Peachpit press and the former editor-in-chief of creativepro.com, MacUser , and Publish magazine. ]