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How PDF and Adobe Led the Revolution in Desktop Publishing

Editor, TRANSFIN
Apr 20, 2021 4:45 PM 1 min read
Editorial

Yesterday, Charles Geschke, the co-founder of Adobe Inc., who helped create the pioneering Portable Document Format, or ubiquitously called PDF, died at the age of 82. 

Known in the industry popularly as "Chuck", Mr. Geschke along with his partner John Warnock, in a way, led the revolution in the desktop publishing business. Both of them were awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2009 for their contribution to many audio-visual innovations in our time, including the PDF, Acrobat, Illustrator, Premiere, Photoshop etc. 

The PDF software is often credited with bringing universalisation in content creation and communication. It began what we call the seamless transfer of information in document format across digital systems and thus, justifiably set a new standard in the domain. 

Let's see how this happened.

The Early Days 

Much like the bespoke origin tales of tech companies, Warnock and Geschke started Adobe in the latter's garage in 1982. 

Fun fact: The company was named after the Adobe Creek that ran behind Warnock's home. 

In 1985, they launched PostScript, a document scripting language which enabled external printing. This was their first major product that acquired prominence because of one singular novelty - a PostScript print file could be generated uniformly across any application on any platform with its properties intact. The printed output was immune to changes in platform, software, device or resolution. 

Now for the mid-1980s, this was a remarkable feat. It drew the attention of Steve Jobs, another visionary, who had considerably improved graphics-mixation and onscreen text-editing in his own devices. What he needed now were two things. 

One, a programming language to scale the fonts, tailor the resolution and preserve identical layout for printed documents. Two, a new application on whose matrix to launch this amalgamated printing and programming technology. 

The first requirement was fulfilled by Adobe which licensed its PostScript technology to Apple to be used in its new laser printer run through the computer LaserWriter. The second was met through Aldus Corporation which developed the PageMaker application for the Mac. A trifecta of software and hardware was thus created and credited for launching the "desktop publishing" revolution, a term coined by the owner of Aldus Corporation, Paul Brainerd. 

The venture was successful because it put the end-to-end experience right in the users' hands. They could input words, images and texts into a screen and see them come out on paper alive with the properties unchanged. 

 

The Adobe Odyssey 

The idea behind PDF took birth in 1990 when Warnock presented his vision for creating a software that enables unrestricted document exchange between different computer applications and systems without altering their specifications. In a way, he was extrapolating the hardware functionality of the LaserWriter into the software medium. 

By this time, the company had launched a bunch of products that offered multiple services, like creation of typefaces, graphics editing (Illustrator, 1987), image editing (Photoshop, 1988), page layout and video editing (Adobe Premiere, 1991). This was partly due to the founders' insistence on expanding and diversifying their product line. 

With that in mind, Adobe released Acrobat in 1993, which was a suite of applications that enabled document-viewing in PDF. Over the next decade, many new versions and features were incorporated into the suite which allowed developers to experiment with the form and functionality of the software and refine it on multiple levels. 

 

Why Did the PDF Click? 

One, the error-free reflection of content from the original version. It retained the document character to a pixel. 

Two, secure usage. Although it wouldn't be wise to put the Adobe products above the scrutiny of hacking, since user designation remains a core aspect of PDF, security concerns are allayed to an extent. 

Three, assimilation of a wide range of media. It combines all the information into a single file including graphics, audio, 3D graphics etc. Making it a one-stop all-accommodating tool. 

Four, it's compact and searchable. 

Five, heightened resolution. Documents can be magnified by upto 1600% in PDF without reducing their quality. 

The PDF wasn't a runaway hit. The industry-wide adoption of the format was rather slow, thanks to the elongated download times in those days and the paid usage of the software. But what it did achieve gradually was the power to set an industry standard in digital content production. Due to the ease of replication, transfer, access and applicability, the PDF format brought the power of digital editing and publishing to the touch of a button. 

Coincidentally, Adobe had the perfect use case ready and set to launch in the form of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that helped the software lift off the ground and then flew it over the rest of corporate America. The IRS began distributing tax forms in the PDF format as early as in 1994. A chief reason why they opted for the PDF was the authenticity in viewing numbers and signatures on the document that were crucial to giving them legal affirmation.  

All this momentum ultimately led to the universal acceptance for PDF in 2007 when it was given official standardisation by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). This basically meant that as opposed to a de-factostandard earlier, the PDF specification was now an open standard

Adobe, however, still builds new versions and proprietary extensions of the Acrobat software. For instance, in 2005, the PDF/A format was created with increased compatibility indices in mind, that no longer adhered to computers, but mobile phones and other devices too.  

 

The Transformative Business of Adobe 

As compared to its peers in Silicon Valley, Adobe has maintained a relative low profile throughout its 39-year history. It may have begun as a publishing software company but today it is a conglomerate offering a number of products. It employs over 22,000 employees and generates $11bn in annual revenue with a market capitalisation of close to $345bn. 

One of the crucial factors that aided its survivability was the numerous acquisitions it made during the early 1990s and 2000s. Another was its entry into the creative cloud domain in 2013 and phasing into the subscription-based pricing model as opposed to the creative suite purchase earlier. The latter of which pushed its market cap by almost 400%.

Adobe Market Cap (2013-2021)

How did Adobe sustain the transition into a cloud company where so many others have failed? Through a series of well-rounded executive decisions, perhaps. Adobe's current CEO, Shantanu Narayen, is a pragmatist who believed that the company would gain immensely from acquiring companies that operated in enterprise cloud analytics. He could foresee that the future of marketing lay in the integration of content creation with marketing analytics. The rise of web/mobile analytics would create a more intricate feedback loop within content creation and design. 

This was the primary motivation behind Adobe's acquisition of Omniture and Behance, both of which came with a large community of users and designers who yearned for a platform of Adobe's scale to showcase their creative work. Today, Behance had over 10 million users, ten times the number it had when it was acquired by Adobe. 

At the same time, the document cloud has seen less innovation comparatively. The PDF still remains similar to its original version in form and function. This could be a cause for concern for the company seeing as there are innumerable open source alternatives today for reading PDFs. At the same time, one may wonder if it is the intactness in the PDF format that still attracts billions towards its usage even today. 

FIN.
 

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