The Story of Adobe

Jan 8, 2022

Adobe is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and the company has never been performing better. After successfully moving from the perpetual licensing model of software to SaaS, the company is worth $243 billion. Many of the products that made Adobe famous are still used today like PDF and Photoshop. Adobe's story is fascinating: run ins with Steve Jobs, snagging a distribution deal of a hot new piece of software called Photoshop, and even a kidnapping.

Chuck Geschke was an engineer working at Xerox PARC in 1972. Xerox PARC was the "Google" of its day, where most of the important commercial computer science research was coming out of. He worked on mainframes and dev tools as part of the Xerox Star (8010). Geschke and fellow engineer John Warnock worked on Interpress – a “page description language” that describes a printed page at a higher level than the actual output bitmap.

Unable to convince Xerox to market Interpress, Geschke and Warnock left to start Adobe, which was named after Adobe Creek behind Warnock’s house. Interpress would become PostScript. One of the first technologies to be WYSIWYG – What You See is What You Get

Adobe's first logo.

The Apple LaserWriter was the first printer to use PostScript. However, PostScript required lots of CPU and memory on the printer to process, and as printer components became less expensive – it didn’t make sense to do the processing on the printer.

Steve Jobs offered to buy Adobe for $5 million in 1982. Geschke and Warnock agreed to sell Apple 19% of the company. After PostScript, Adobe released digital fonts and graphics software – including Illustrator for the Macintosh. Adobe would go public in 1986 at $11/share.

In 1989, Adobe released Photoshop. The software was actually developed by two brothers, Thomas and John Knoll, who sold distribution rights to Adobe for a royalty. Adobe would buy the software outright in 1995 for $34.5m.

In 1992, Geschke was kidnapped at gunpoint as he was going to work. They demanded a ransom of $650,000 which was paid by Geschke’s daughter. After four days, Geschke was released and the kidnappers were later found and arrested.

PDF, released in 1993, was the descendant of PostScript which rendered the PostScript images on the computer. PDF contains both vector graphics, text, and bitmap graphics. PDF would grow to support links, forms, JavaScript, and more. It was a proprietary format until 2008.

Geschke held a few roles at Adobe. He was a longtime co-chair of the board of directors from 1997 to 2017. From 1986 to 1994, he was Chief Operating Officer, and from 1989 to 2000 he was the company’s president.

Adobe forever changed the history of graphics and publishing on personal computers. PDF and Photoshop have become ubiquitous software that are used by nearly every knowledge worker. And it still seems like they are on Day 1.