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How Adobe Revolutionized The Desktop Software Industry


Mention the names Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk to any techthusiast and you'll see how much they're astonished by their work and life deeds.

Do the same with the names John Warnock and Charles Geschke and you'll see some confused faces. Ironically, without these two, no one would have known about the five founders previously mentioned - or the ones similar to them.

The story of John and Charles is not the usual 'two college dropouts launched three companies by the age of 28' founding story. In fact, they're quite opposite of it - they started their entrepreneurship journey in their 40s.

But little did they know, they were about to pull a 'moon landing' - a small step for them, but a giant one for the world!

Read on to find out more:

John And Charles: The Beginnings

John and Charles were born and raised on opposite sides of the USA. John was a kid from the West, born in 1940 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Charles was born in 1939, in Cleveland, Ohio. Charles had the privilege to be raised in a family environment where both his grandfather and father were letterpress photo engravers, a fact that would have an immeasurable influence on his future.

John and Charles did it all by the book - finished high-school, graduated with honors in aspiring fields, and were exceptional students overall.

Of all the things they had in common, their love for mathematics and computer science was unmeasurable. Both of them had a thing for numbers, a passion that would soon grow into something bigger.

After graduation, John started working at IBM Corp, but working for a giant corporation wasn't one of John's long-term goals - he wanted to become a professor. For Charles, things developed in a similar way: he received his Ph.D. degree in computer science and started working at Xerox PARC.

Xerox was the place where the two of them would meet and it's quite the story!

The One Hiring Decision That Made It All Happen

Charles was lucky to work in a place like Xerox, a company that seemed to be ahead of its time. He started working there in October 1972 at the Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). His first project was working on Xerox Star, the first commercial personal computer with installed technologies that are regular nowadays - icons, folders, mouse, file servers, e-mail, bitmapped display, etc. Doing this at the beginning of the 70s must have been quite a challenge for Charles, but he was an extremely skillful developer and had no problem completing the task successfully.

In 1978, Charles built PARC's Imaging Sciences Laboratory, dedicated to performing research in the fields of IT, computer science, image processing, graphics, etc. Being a manager of the laboratory, Charles had the freedom to choose the company's potential employees. First, he needed a chief scientist, someone not involved with PARC in any way previously - and John's name popped in his head!

Charles had known John by reputation, but he'd never actually met him. He called him up to meet for lunch, and they immediately hit it off. They both had beards, both had three kids, both refereed soccer, and most important of all - both were mathematicians. It was an instant match!

John was hired, and it was the best hiring decision Charles ever made!

Soon, the duo would make some groundbreaking moves!

How The Idea Of Adobe Was Born

Around the same time, the team at Xerox PARC was faced with another problem - they needed a special language that would enable Xerox printers to talk to computers, and John was the perfect man for it. Under Charles' direction, John developed the language 'Interpress', which was a true revolution at the time. The technology that 'Interpress' used was impressive: it allowed for personal computing devices to communicate to printers and produce prints with exceptional quality for a fraction of the cost the company had before.

Xerox was fascinated by 'Interpress' and made it an internal standard, but wasn't interested in licensing the technology and selling it to others. Charles and John were frustrated with Xerox's decision, as they felt that the company could commercialize the software and make a bunch of money.

As a result, in 1982, the duo resigned from Xerox to create a new language from scratch. The decision was hard, but the pair felt that there was more to be made out of 'Interpress'. Their goal was to create a language that would enable printers to communicate to computers and be able to see exactly how text, images, and lines would look on paper.

Although they originally planned to offer printing services to businesses and individuals, developing a software model seemed more profitable, especially following John's invention that enabled the determination of hidden surface in computer graphics.

Their personal savings weren't enough to start a company, so they managed to convince Bill Hambrecht, a board member of the investment bank Hambrecht & Quist to invest in the company and transfer $2.5 million over two years in two equal payments.

Thus, in December 1982, Adobe was born - named after a river that ran behind John's home.

John and Charles didn't waste any time and started working on a new project from the get-go. The idea was to form a language that was similar to Interpress but can be used universally, an idea John first had in 1976 while he worked at Evans & Sutherland, a pioneering computer firm. However, creating an entirely new language was a challenge, so the duo worked on the product from December 1982 to 1984.

They finally released the new software in 1984 named 'PostScript', which was the first device-independent page description language in the world! It instantly attracted the attention of some of the most prominent businessmen!

Steve Jobs Placed An Offer They Couldn't Refuse

Two months after the launch, a mutual friend who had left Xerox to work for Steve Jobs, brought Steve over to Adobe on a visit. When Charles and John showed him what they were doing, he loved the idea but didn't need the computers as he was focused on building the Macintosh. Also, Steve had a deal with Canon for the laser printer, so he didn't need printers either.

What he needed was the innovative software, so he made an offer the duo didn't expect - he wanted to buy their company just two months after its foundation, and invited them to work for him!

Charles and John never considered selling the company and told Steve that they had a $2.5 million worth business plan. For someone like Steve, their business plan seemed ridiculous and he suggested they call him when they change their mind. The Adobe duo was baffled and went to consult with the chairman of their board, Q.T. Wiles. He had the same reaction and he advised the duo to throw the business plan out and do a deal - and so they did!

Charles called Steve and told him about their decision and now, they wanted to arrange a deal to license him the software. They worked out a deal where Steve bought 19.9% of Adobe, which meant that Apple was Adobe's first official partner!

Adobe Becomes A Standard-Setter

Once Steve Jobs got his hands on PostScript, it was easy to revolutionize the printer market. In 1985, Apple released its LaserWriter, one of the first laser printers available globally. The software was a game-changer, so Apple's competition realized they have to implement the PostScript protocol in order to compete on the market.

The first company to do major changes was IBM, whose representatives went to talk directly to Charles and John to implement their software in their computers. However, the duo had other plans: they wanted to do a deal with Hewlett-Packard. However, HP's contractors were extremely arrogant to Charles and John, and from that moment on, the duo didn't want anything to do with them!

Well, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Immediately after their HP rejection, Charles called IBM back and made the deal. The first IBM PostScript-equipped PCs came out in 1986, and they crushed the competition. At the same time, Adobe managed to strike a deal with font company Linotype and license the trademarks of 'Times' and 'Helvetica'.

Yes, the duo didn't let the HP people and their unreceptiveness of new ideas stop them from reaching their goals.

This decision turned out to be possibly the best one of their lives!

Microsoft and Apple Try to Knock Down Adobe

Charles and John knew the potential of their product, but they didn't stop there - they started expanding their product lines. In 1987, they developed the Adobe Illustrator design software exclusively for Apple, and it instantly became the standard-setter.

By 1988, Adobe's estimated worth was $83 million, which the 'big guys' in the tech world saw as a threat. A lot of companies started cloning PostScript, and at one point there were over 75 PostScript clones! Although Charles and John never worried that some of them might start to chip away Adobe's market share, there was an even bigger looming threat: Microsoft and Apple's 1989 collaboration.

During a phone call, Bill Gates told Charles that Microsoft had struck a deal with Apple over the TrueImage and TrueType software, which were similar to Adobe's PostScript. Even more surprisingly, Bill called Charles two days before the software's official launch, almost like he wanted to rub the success in his face. Charles, understandably scared of the consequences this collaboration could have for Adobe, offered to give the software to Microsoft for free.

Bill refused.

Charles and John took this merging very seriously - after all, Microsoft is Microsoft! But they didn't back up and instead, they threw themselves at work thinking of new solutions.

Their response was developing a software similar to Apple's TrueType, and they released it just 60 days after Microsoft and Apple's announcement! It turned out to be a massive hit among customers, while TrueType failed miserably, which prompted Steve Jobs to call Charles and John and ask them to return.

Adobe From 1990 To Date

As the Internet took the world by storm, Charles and John didn't want to rush things and chose to move slow and steady. In 1990, they were approached by a couple of guys from the University of Michigan who showed them a program they've been working on, named 'Photoshop', a graphic design software.

The Adobe founders figured the printing industry, as well as all imagery, will eventually go completely digital, so they bought the company and hired the guys. They released Adobe Photoshop in 1990, and we all know how that took off.

Instead of investing in development only, they chose to invest in building a sales and marketing presence in the retail world. Charles and John realized that Adobe couldn't become an industry leader by being a one-product and a one-channel company, so they started expanding their product and services line.

In 2020, Adobe has 16 products that are used by more than 90% of creative professionals, and none of them would've been possible if Charles and John didn't have the courage to leave XEROX and branch off on their own - a decision that changed the world of design, marketing, and even technology itself - forever!