Saturday, January 02, 2010

Does Adobe Have a Future?

I've long been an admirer of Adobe, and over my prepress career with Creo and Kodak I saw them go through a number of difficult transformations. The core of Adobe's difficulties is not the migration of paper media to electronic, it's that the founding CEO John Warnock, has not been replaced, and Adobe is still coasting on his innovation.

My first encounter with Adobe was through PostScript, when the company I was working for at the time bought a DEC LN03 LaserPrinter that came with the fabled "Red Book" (now online) on the PostScript language. Up to that point, the only languages that dot-matrix printing devices understood were "choose one of the 6 built-in fonts" and "print this letter at the next position." Even with the advent of the far-superior laser printer, the same protocol was supported, limiting these technical marvels' capability to seeing letters that were not just punched out of a 5x7 array of dots.

PostScript brought singular benefits to the laser printers, which had 300 dpi resolution and the capability to draw anywhere on the million bits of 8.5 x 11 paper. After a couple hours of reading that book, I was printing satellite images and marking annotations at precise latitudes, all computed in the printer by PostScript's programming power.

PostScript was a programming language based John Warnock's work at Xerox PARC. PARC is now known as the textbook model of a company that encouraged and achieved some of the finest innovation in technology, then failed to commercialize it, seeing it instead make other companies a fortune.

I had the fortunate connection to join with Stephen Herron, an independent consultant on printing technologies, who was teaching a course for Illustrator designers to "reach under the hood" of the new LaserWriter and learn tricks that Illustrator '88 was still holding back. Illustrator itself was another John Warnock invention. Having put the controls for smooth BeziƩr curves into PostScript, only font designers were using them. John's wife asked him how she could create curved objects and lines, so John had some developers create essentially a PostScript editing and creation tool. The user interface for Illustrator was a beautiful mapping from the elegance and power of the PostScript programming language into a visual metaphor. Even the abstract control points of bezier curves found a simple analogy in the tangent controls that adorn every Illustrator curve.

Stephen and I developed an application that let users design custom halftone dot shapes in PostScript. He now teaches at Emily Carr.

With PageMaker, Illustrator, and PostScript enabled by a partnership with Apple, Adobe's fortunes grew. Sadly, QuarkXPress displaced PageMaker as the professional tool for page layout, mainly because the then-CEO Tim Cook, spent many hours at a Denver prepress shop with the Nies family, learning how to coax correct CMYK separations out of a Linotronic 330. This effort cemented QuarkXPress' dominant position for almost 20 years.

John's next major invention was outlined in a paper now referred to as "Camelot." It explores the idea that since PostScript is a programming language, one could replace all the drawing operations, like LineTo, CurveTo, etc. with a command that simply writes them out to another file. The output file would not have all the subroutines and algorithms in it, it would just be a long string of commands to draw stuff. The advantages were clear over PostScript: No long programming chains, no infinite loops, fast execution, and a much simpler reader. This output format became to core of PDF - the Portable Document Format.

While John expected this to make RIPs much simpler, of course Acrobat and PDF have found a whole new market in document archiving and portability. Adobe's Acrobat division now accounts for a significant proportion of their revenue, and PDF is part of the core U.S. government infrastructure, from tax forms to archiving of electronic documents.

All this from one paper.

Look at Adobe now, several years after John's retirement. Bruce Chizen understood business and helped PDF's commercial success. The acquisition of Macromedia was a step towards bringing the print and online worlds together, but much of that effort seems to be lost on internal friction and the difficulty of bringing together two worlds each with its own history.

Adobe still has the potential to be the unifying agent for electronic and print publishing, but without the innovation from the top, new ideas only add incremental features to the product line, and it would be difficult for the Narayen-led version of Adobe to embrace the paradigm shifting ideas of its founder, John Warnock.Without that, it will either take a long time for Adobe to enable true multiplatform publishing, or someone else may do it.