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The History and Founding of Adobe: How Adobe Was Started and Became a Leader in Digital Media and Marketing Software

Adobe is one of the most well-known and influential technology companies in the world today. As a leader in digital media and marketing software, Adobe’s products like Photoshop, Acrobat, and Creative Cloud have become household names. But how did Adobe get its start? Who were the founders that helped shape Adobe into the company it is today? In this article, we’ll explore the history and founding story of Adobe.

The Origins of Adobe

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Adobe was founded in 1982 by John Warnock and Charles Geschke. The two men had previously worked together at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. At PARC, Warnock and Geschke helped develop key technologies for the modern graphical user interface, like networking, object-oriented programming, and laser printers.

In the early 1980s, Warnock and Geschke recognized the potential for these technologies to revolutionize the publishing industry. At the time, printed documents relied on dedicated typesetting equipment that was expensive, complex, and time-consuming to use. Warnock and Geschke envisioned a solution based on the new desktop electronics that were emerging – namely, the personal computer.

Warnock and Geschke left Xerox PARC in 1982 to pursue their vision of an easy-to-use publishing system based on personal computers. Drawing inspiration from their time at PARC, they named their new company Adobe, after a creek that ran behind Warnock’s home in Los Altos, California.

Launching PostScript and Adobe PDF

Warnock and Geschke focused their efforts on developing PostScript, a page description language for controlling printer output. PostScript described pages using mathematical formulas, rather than conventional bitmap images. This allowed pages to be rendered accurately at any resolution, facilitating high-quality printing directly from personal computers.

Adobe launched PostScript in 1984, licensing it to Apple for use in the Apple LaserWriter printer. PostScript was revolutionary, enabling desktop publishing on the Macintosh and PC platforms. It launched the desktop publishing revolution, allowing individuals and businesses to design, typeset, and print high-quality documents without specialized equipment.

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Building on PostScript, Warnock and Geschke later developed the Portable Document Format, better known as PDF. Released in 1993, PDF allowed documents to be shared digitally while preserving the exact formatting and appearance intended by the creator. PDF was built around PostScript and quickly became the standard format for sharing and printing digital documents.

The Success of Adobe Photoshop

In addition to PostScript and PDF, another one of Adobe’s most impactful products has been Photoshop. Photoshop was originally created by two brothers, Thomas and John Knoll, as a program called Display. The Knolls were Ph.D. students at the University of Michigan, and had written Display to help them view images on their black-and-white monitor.

Impressed by their program, Adobe acquired rights to Distiller in 1988. Under Adobe’s stewardship, it was further developed into Photoshop 1.0 and released in 1990. Photoshop revolutionized image editing and creation with its layers system, specialized tools, and wide support for graphics file formats. It quickly became a standard tool for designers, photographers, and visual artists.

From Early Publishing Tools to Complete Creative Suites

While tools like Photoshop, PostScript, and PDF formed the early core of Adobe’s business, the company steadily expanded into other software categories through both internal development and strategic acquisitions. Key Adobe products that were added over the years include:

  • Illustrator A vector graphics editor launched in 1987. Illustrator allows artists to create scalable illustrations based on mathematical equations, similar to how PostScript describes documents.
  • Premiere – A video editing application acquired in 1994. Premiere is a popular tool for editing and producing video content.
  • After Effects – A motion graphics and visual effects program added through the acquisition of Aldus in 1994. After Effects is widely used for broadcast, film, and online video post-production.
  • InDesign – A professional page layout application released in 1999. InDesign replaced Adobe PageMaker as Adobe’s flagship publishing software.
  • Dreamweaver – A web development application acquired along with Macromedia in 2005. Dreamweaver remains a leading web design tool.
  • Flash – Adobe Flash, also acquired via Macromedia, helped power rich web interactivity with its support for animations, games, and applications.
  • Creative Suite – First released in 2003, Creative Suite bundled major Adobe apps together in integrated packages targeted at creative professionals. Creative Suite evolved into Creative Cloud.
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By acquiring companies like Aldus and Macromedia, Adobe was able to expand beyond its publishing roots into areas like web design, video, and animation software. This growing suite of creative tools ultimately led to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, which gives subscribers access to all Adobe design apps via a monthly subscription.

Adobe Today: Cloud Software and AI

Today, Adobe continues to be a leader in creative software and digital document technology. Some key facts about Adobe today include:

  • Over 20 major creative applications, covering publishing, photography, graphic design, web development, video production, animation, and more.
  • Creative Cloud is Adobe’s primary software offering, with over 25 million subscribers as of 2022.
  • Annual revenue has grown to over $17 billion.
  • The company employs over 28,000 people worldwide.
  • In addition to creative tools, Adobe also offers marketing, analytics, and e-commerce cloud platforms.
  • Adobe’s document cloud manages over 7 trillion transactions per year.
  • Adobe Sensei is the company’s AI and machine learning framework, which powers features like intelligent photo editing and search in Adobe apps.
  • The company remains headquartered in San Jose, California, near where it was founded.

Although far larger than the publishing upstart it began as in 1982, Adobe’s founding spirit of creative empowerment remains. By developing innovative tools and technologies centered around human creativity, Adobe has maintained its position as one of the most important software companies for creators.

The Founders’ Legacy

Adobe’s story illustrates how the technology ingenuity and perseverance of two founders – John Warnock and Charles Geschke – was able to spark a desktop publishing revolution. Warnock and Geschke recognized the potential for PostScript and PDF before almost anyone else. By turning their vision into reality, they fundamentally changed how people create and share information.

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Warnock served as Adobe’s chief executive until 2001 and then as chairman through 2009. Geschke was president until 2000 and then Adobe’s chairman until 2017. While no longer involved in Adobe’s day-to-day operations, Warnock and Geschke’s influence persists through the company’s core technologies and sense of purpose.

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Today, Adobe continues to shape the future of digital media, empowering people to create beautiful and impactful content. From Photoshop to Creative Cloud, Adobe’s tools have become essential to creative professionals, marketers, educators, and casual users alike. It all started with the innovative thinking of two founders, and their desire to bring professional quality publishing to everyone’s desktop.


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