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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Adobe Acrobat grows by leaps, bounds

By Jon Fortt
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Adobe Acrobat

June 15, 1993

What it does: Allows people to send documents via computer.

Sales: Acrobat products contributed more than $100 million last quarter.
More than a decade ago John Warnock walked around Adobe Systems, the company he co-founded, pinning up fliers to stir up interest. He had an idea: software that could one day make paper communication as obsolete as stone tablets.

June marked the 10-year anniversary of when that idea, Adobe Acrobat, became a reality. Its affect on the San Jose, Calif., company has been staggering, and it has become clear that Adobe's future rests on its ability to sell companies on a new way of doing paperwork — largely without the paper.

If that sounds bland, it's fine with Adobe. Acrobat is as lucrative as it is unromantic.

Adobe built a reputation on its Photoshop and Illustrator software for digital artists, but last quarter more than a third of its $320.1 million revenue came from Acrobat-related products for creating and managing digital forms — eclipsing all other product groups, including the one that makes Photoshop.

Simply put, Acrobat is the growth engine. It is the only reason Adobe has the audacity to build onto its downtown San Jose twin-tower headquarters in the midst of a crippling economic downturn.

"It's safe to say if it wasn't for Acrobat," says CEO Bruce Chizen, "there wouldn't be a third tower."

In the process, Acrobat is transforming Adobe from a maker of digital palettes and canvasses into a master of digital communication.

"I think it's a pretty amazing product. I remember the days when Adobe was struggling to get it accepted," said technology analyst Angele Boyd at International Data Corp. "It really has worked, and it's become a commonly used tool today."

Warnock, who has retired from running the company, could say he told you so. From the early days when he tacked up fliers to "sort of sell it within the organization," the gray-bearded intellectual was Acrobat's biggest supporter.

In its earliest stages he called the project "Camelot," because it envisioned a perfect world where the incompatibilities of digital documents vanished; in a 1991 memo describing the project Warnock declared that "if this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change."

So after years of development, on June 15, 1993, Adobe launched Acrobat 1.0. But the fundamental way people worked didn't change right then. Acrobat looked like a dud, and Warnock was puzzled.

"I thought the world would immediately get it," he recalls. "I thought that once people figured out that they could distribute documents across a great variety of computers, it would be the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Sliced bread, it turns out, is a lot more affordable and easier to understand.

"In the early days we were spending quite a bit of money on Acrobat development," Warnock said. The project missed sales expectations every quarter for the first three years. "The board of directors at every board meeting would question whether it would amount to anything."

Warnock persevered. Things began to change as the Web browser gained popularity in the mid-90s, and people began exchanging more information over the Internet.

Some at Adobe thought that Acrobat PDF should be the main language of the Web, rather than HTML or hypertext markup language that has become standard. HTML is fickle, and will cause the same page to look differently depending on the computing platform.

For a company that values the ideals of perfection and precision, that was unacceptable — Adobe is so aesthetically sensitive that for years, the navigational icons in all Adobe programs were black and white for fear that colors would clash with an artist's work.

"A big part of Adobe in many ways is producing things that are beautiful," says Bob Wulff, the first and only person to lead the Adobe's Acrobat engineering team. "That is still in our blood. That is in our genes."

Warnock's vision of Acrobat changing the way people work now has plenty of true believers. For example, the Pfizer pharmaceutical company is one of many that now use PDF to submit product applications to the Food and Drug Administration — electronic submission saves the company from printing tens of thousands of pages.