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Originally published Monday, October 30, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Q&A | The "invention" of desktop publishing | Scarcity of typefaces

Adobe Systems founders John Warnock and Charles "Chuck" Geschke sat down for an interview recently at Geschke's Los Altos, Calif., home — where Adobe...

San Jose Mercury News

Adobe Systems founders John Warnock and Charles "Chuck" Geschke sat down for an interview recently at Geschke's Los Altos, Calif., home — where Adobe Creek runs through the middle of the yard — to learn their strategies for turning geeky toys into multimillion-dollar businesses, why it's a travesty that there are so few fonts on the Web, and how they reacted when Adobe hit its nadir.

Here's an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q: In the early 1980s, a perfect storm of products launched the desktop-publishing revolution: Adobe PostScript, Aldus PageMaker, Apple's Macintosh and Canon printers. Looking back, the combination seems obvious — was it logical at the time?

Warnock: We actually didn't figure it out [immediately].

Geschke: When the [Apple] LaserWriter [which used Adobe PostScript] first came out, there was a lot of talk about it, a lot of pent-up demand, but after a few months, the sales [to big businesses] began to flatten out and really slowed down.

Fortunately, we got a group of people together, including John Sculley at Apple, Paul Brainerd at [Seattle-based] Aldus, and Adobe, and put together the idea of a concept called desktop publishing. That allowed Apple to reposition the way they were selling the laser printer and Macintosh, and launched them into the publishing and graphic arts industry.

Warnock: The customers just loved it. ... They could buy a $10,000 platform and do publishing. It changed the economics of the publishing business.

Geschke: So we're responsible for all that stuff you lug in from the mailbox every day.

Q: Publishers, and Adobe, are obsessed with typefaces, but most Internet users don't seem to care whether their MySpace blogs are displayed in Helvetica or serif. Does that bother you?

Warnock: It's really sad. Most Web programmers have abandoned HTML because you have more control with Flash. HTML works so badly. It's not that [kids on MySpace] wouldn't like to use different typefaces. It's that you're prohibited from doing anything.

Q: Last summer, Andrei Herasimchuk, who spent eight years at Adobe, generated buzz among designers and programmers with an open letter asking Adobe to open-source several of its typefaces online so the Internet would look less boring. What do you think of the idea?

Warnock: It'd be very easy to do that. Adobe can do it with just its own typefaces, but it wouldn't fix the problem. HTML does not have a good way to specify and download typefaces the way PDF does. There are fundamental changes in the Web infrastructure needed to fix this problem.

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Q: You founded Adobe when you both already had families, and you've stressed work-life balance. Why do you think startups expect 80-hour weeks from their employees?

Warnock: Unfortunately, I think people too often see the business ethic out there and say, "This is the way you have to run a business to be successful. You have to be cutthroat and go for the kill." I have never believed that. I think that really good products do really well. The money takes care of itself if you build really good stuff.

Q: It's been said that many of the technologies Adobe develops don't have an obvious use. How do you monetize them into a business?

Warnock: Almost every single one of our major products was like that. PostScript had no market. ... They said there was no market for personal computers driving that kind of publishing.

Geschke: That made the investors very nervous.

Warnock: When Illustrator came out, there was not one single graphic artist in the world that used a personal computer to do any of their work. Not one. And so Illustrator just changed that. When Photoshop came out, the largest hard drive you could buy was 20 megabytes. That's one bad photograph.

Geschke: And a scanner cost $25,000, and there were no digital cameras. ... It's so much more successful in general to enter a market when no one's already defined it and established it.

Q: The period around 1997 and 1998 was tough for Adobe. How did you deal with it?

Warnock: We had this meeting in London and everybody was at a loss as to how to take the company forward, and the existing executives were not terribly visionary. We weren't getting the kind of traction that we needed. So we decided we were going to hire an executive team from the outside with blue-chip credentials.

The executives we hired absolutely refused to work with each other. In 1998, the stock was languishing, we weren't seeing any growth, the brand was getting fragmented because each little business unit wanted to build their own brand and show what they could do. So I fired them.

Q: At the time, John said he was concerned it might have been the founders, not the executives, that were causing the trouble. How did you know it wasn't your fault?

Geschke: Part of it is your own gut instinct in believing in yourself and what your values and principles are, but more important, we looked at key employees who had made our company successful, and it was pretty clear that they knew what the problem was, and we listened to them.

Q: Part of the vision for Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) is a paperless office. Do you think a totally paperless office is possible?

Warnock: There will always be paper. I use paper all the time. But the amount of paper used at Adobe is vastly different than the amount of paper that used to be at Adobe. Almost every memo or press release is approved electronically.

Q: What do you think about the current Internet frenzy, with massive valuations for companies like YouTube and MySpace?

Geschke: I think it's all in a nascent period, and we don't know which of these things is really going to take off. I must admit, I would never have predicted Google could raise the kind of revenue they have out of advertising. But businesses who want to use the Web as a platform for themselves had better find out how to maintain a community of fixed users. Without the community, you're just one nightmare of two guys in a garage away from losing the whole thing.

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