Adobe’s Sarah Rosenbaum: From Acrobat 1.0 to Acrobat 6.0

Editor’s Note: In her Adobe Systems’ office in San Jose, Sarah Rosenbaum has something of a personal Acrobat/PDF museum — she admits to maintaining a collection of all Acrobat product boxes from version 1.0 to the just-announced Acrobat 6.0 (with more than one box), as well as all marketing brochures and related documentation for all previous versions. She didn’t just buy them off eBay. As one of three remaining members of the company’s original Acrobat (actually, pre-Acrobat) team, Rosenbaum has been heavily involved in what went into each of the Acrobat boxes and products. As part of our ongoing coverage this year commemorating the first decade of Acrobat/PDF — officially launched by Adobe on June 15, 1993 — we had a chance recently to catch up with her between stints of promotional globetrotting and late Acrobat 6.0 development to talk about her wealth of PDF-oriented experiences and insights.


PLANET PDF: Sarah, thanks much for taking time from your obviously hectic schedule as of late to talk with Planet PDF! We’d like to talk a bit about the history of Acrobat and PDF and your role in it, and also about the major version(s) of Acrobat that Adobe has just announced. Let’s start at the beginning.

We’re fast approaching the 10-year anniversary of Adobe’s public introduction of the Acrobat 1.0 product family and the Portable Document Acro1fam2Format (PDF) on June 15, 1993. How long prior to that date did you begin working at Adobe as part of the Acrobat team, what was your initial role, and what sorts of things were you doing leading up to the official announcement? How big was the Acrobat team at Adobe back then, and now?

SARAH ROSENBAUM: : ‘I’ve been at Adobe just over 12 years now, on Acrobat for 11 of those years. Actually about a year before Acrobat shipped I joined the ‘Carousel Product Division,’ which is what we were called. My initial role was as a Technical Training Specialist. I developed and delivered curriculum for our anticipated partners, and our internal and sales folks who would be dealing with technical sales and/or support. I got into that role because I have a Masters degree in Education with an emphasis in curriculum development, as well as I had worked in the technical support group of Adobe for about a year and a half or so supporting Photoshop for Macintosh 1.07, Illustrator 3 and Premiere 1.0. I don’t honestly remember how big the Carousel group was at that time, but I can tell you that we were a handful. I remember we had two product managers — Rob Babcock and Frank Bozeman — and some other management, a small, dedicated sales force and a dedicated engineering and QE team and that was about it. Bob Wulff was the Director of Engineering for Carousel. A pretty scrappy little team there. Bob, myself and one of the QA people are the only three of the original group who have been here through the whole history. It’s a lot bigger team now, many factors larger.’

PLANET PDF: How did the software codenamed ‘Carousel’ come to be officially dubbed ‘Acrobat’ — what was the process and thinking that went into the choice of the product name? What did Adobe want to convey about the product by virtue of the selected name?


ROSENBAUM: : ‘I was not directly involved in that because I was in training, and wasn’t in the product marketing or management team. Carousel was always going to be a codename, and we had about four different names that we were looking at for the product and the technology. Part of the naming criteria included trying to convey the incredible capabilities of the product in the name, but also having a name that was mostly universal — that had the same meaning around the world. ‘Acrobat’ works really well internationally.’

PLANET PDF: Acrobat struggled a bit out of the gate, but eventually overcome some of its perceived shortcomings and/or as people gradually came to understand and appreciate the product’s range of capabilities and benefits. From the internal Adobe perspective, was there any one or two things — changes or additions to the product, or other factors or circumstances — that seemed to mark a turning point for Acrobat & PDF? Also, at what point did references to PDF as a defacto document standard become common?

ROSENBAUM: : ‘It [acceptance] took about three years. The biggest influencing factor was the proliferation of the World Wide Web (WWW). With HTML and Mosaic 1.0 — the early Netscape browser — people had to publish information, but there weren’t any really good HTML editors for creating all of that, you had to hand-code everything. With the architecture of the PDF format for reading and writing pieces or pages at a time off of network servers, we just had to modify it a bit to make it work off a Web server. It worked really well and there was an appeal for getting rich content on the Web, which was a very static, a very minimalistic environment back then (1995-96). I think that was the single biggest influence that sparked awareness, use, Reader installations, etc. [De facto standard] Probably during 96-97 — the Acrobat 3.0 timeframe — because the Reader was easy to get to, to download and to install, it still fit on a floppy disk back then, I think that’s when people really began talking about a de facto standard.’

PLANET PDF: During the past 10 years, a global user community has built up around Acrobat and PDF. As someone who had a hand in giving birth, so to speak, to the software and format a decade ago, that must be a very rewarding thing to see and to have watched develop. Can you talk a little about that?

ROSENBAUM: ‘I feel like I’ve been part of this incredible groundswell of momentum that has never really slowed down. I remember even back in the v. 1.0 and v. 2.0 days, when I was still a training specialist, John Warnock made an executive decision to take anyone who had adequate skills and who was not involved in anything mission critical and temporarily assigned them to Bob Wulff to expedite getting the product out. So I ended up working for Bob for about five months during the v.1.0 development timeframe, actually doing QE for Acrobat Distiller on Macintosh. It was like ‘Thank God I’d had that PostScript training class to figure out what those PostScript errors were.’

I really enjoyed that experience because it gave me a chance to get to know the engineers and to understand the product architecture from a very formative stage, and to build a good rapport with the engineers as well. I could see the activity level, the interest level and dedication of our internal folks, and then going back to the training department after that five or six months of hiatus into QE, developing the training materials and then going out on the road, and actually delivering them on customer locations. The amount of interest and energy that swirled around Acrobat was pretty inspiring.

And of course from 1.0 to 2.0 they added the whole API notion (that allowed for the use of plug-ins) — it was amazing to me that in the course of one year they re-architected Acrobat from the ground up to add APIs, to add a bunch of functionality, to advance the PDF specification and do a bunch of other stuff in just 12 months. It was incredible.

Just to see the interest from the customer side build, and then with version 2.0 and the rush of plug-ins — we had some real early developers, some who have managed to stay in business and continued to migrate their business over time, while others have gotten swallowed up or drifted off because the demand wasn’t there for what they were trying to do — to see that build over time has been phenomenal. I’m constantly amazed at the turnout at PDF- or Acrobat-focused events, whether it’s the conferences you guys help put on or other events, it still is mind-boggling to me to travel the world and discover the interest. The amount it has touched people’s lives is phenomenal to me.

A couple weeks ago I was coming back from Japan. It turned out I was in the front row of a United 777. I’m looking down the hall and I can see the cockpit’s open, so I asked the flight attendant if I could just go take a peek in there, as I’d never really seen a cockpit of a 777 before. ‘Sure, go ahead, they love to have people visit.’ So I walked up there and was standing about a foot and a half behind the door, kind of peeking my head around and the flight engineer said ‘Hey, come on in — you want to see this, we’ll show it to you!’ So as we’re talking they ask where I work and I tell them I’m with Adobe. The co-pilot turns and says ‘Can you give me some advice: I’m thinking about going to the Linux operating system at home and I’m wondering which browser exists and do you make Acrobat Reader for Linux?’ I’m thinking we’ve really hit the jackpot if he’s asking this just in a happen stance conversation. To see that kind of awareness and proliferation is so mind-boggling.’


PLANET PDF: Your role at Adobe on the Acrobat team has changed over the years and product versions. Give us a capsule summary of your different titles and associated responsibilities from the beginning up to your current ‘Director of Acrobat Product Marketing’ title? What is the most enjoyable or rewarding aspect for you?

ROSENBAUM: : ‘I was back in training before Acrobat 1.0, and at some point in the process of coming out with Acrobat 2.1, I moved over into product management and was working for Rob Babcock. I was initially the product manager for Acrobat for UNIX for Acrobat 2.1. In addition, as we began looking at 3.0 I also got more focused on all PDF creation on all platforms and on the creative professional market: What could we do with 3.0 that would help in regards to color and other sorts of support? Acrobat 3 was really the first one that supported CMYK and spot colors, and that was the first version that was really useful in a prepress workflow.

After Acrobat 3.0 shipped, I took on more of a team leadership and management role around Acrobat and was very focused on the creative professional market. Adobe went through a reorganization and Bryan Lamkin was heading up a business division focused on the creative professional. Acrobat’s been paired up with different products and divisions across Adobe at different points in time. I was in Bryan’s unit for a few months, focused on Acrobat for creative professionals as well as helping out with FrameMaker and some other stuff. Then I came back full-time on Acrobat in the division, right about the time Acrobat 4 shipped, to run Acrobat product management cohesively as one group. And that’s what I’ve been doing since.

In my current role I’m focused on driving the business strategy and the marketing and market strategies for the Acrobat/desktop business. I have a team of people who work with me who formulate and execute on that. However, through the ship of Acrobat 6 I’m still sort of acting in terms of product management as well.

As for what’s most rewarding about my job — the people here are great. The people here are fabulous. They’re creative, they’re dedicated, they’re smart, and compassionate and personable. I really mean that for everybody — the engineers, as well as the product management folks. Second, being able to see the impact that the products we bring to market have on people’s lives, and what they can do because of what Adobe has brought to market to me is really mesmerizing. I feel really glad and fortunate and privileged to be a part of that. It’s like leaving a stamp on the world — a really positive one.


I remember one of the first Seybold conferences that had a session — not a day, but a single session — on Acrobat and PDF. It was added because there was enough of a groundswell. There were maybe 40-60 people there, and that was really thrilling. And then I remember maybe a couple years after that at Seybold we had a ‘PDF Day‘ and there were around 700 people across two rooms — they had to set up an overflow room. And now you see that progression even further with a PDF Conference. I’m still a little bit awestruck about that.’

PLANET PDF: Tell us a little more about what your current job entails in relation to the development of the recently announced Acrobat 6, now being segmented into three products.

ROSENBAUM: : ‘We are the team that really followed up with customers after Acrobat 5 to better understand what was next, or what could be next and where we could go next, how that would work for customers, and how it would work for Adobe as well from a business perspective. Really hunkering down on identifying those opportunities, developing a plan to reach those opportunities and then executing against that, driving the product development, and also the go-to-market positioning and delivery. That’s what my team does.

Acrobat 6 Professional Box 2

Everything people will see in Acrobat 6 is a result of that process and our work, including the approach to segmenting the product line for different customer segments to more pointedly meet their needs and what they’re trying to accomplish. The user interface and how we make it usable for everybody to pick it up and use it, to get your stuff done, with no training necessary — although some people will still want it, and that’s great; to make it less of a burden if you have to support it; the innovation around Review Tracker and trying to take that to a new level and a new way of doing it; to make it accessible and usable to all. Every product in this family comes from our customers’ needs married with our business opportunities and Adobe’s ability to take it to market — a confluence of all those.’

PLANET PDF: Up until your most recent promotion, you were one of the most visible members of the Acrobat team, often appearing on industry panel discussions and giving product demonstrations at events such as the Seybold Seminars’ ‘PDF Day’ programs. You had a lot of direct customer interaction, so you surely had a very good sense of how customers were using or wanted to use the product and format. How do you transfer those customer experiences into future Acrobat product development?

ROSENBAUM: : ‘The Adobe philosophy is that we do what we need to and what we can for our customers. If it doesn’t start from a customer problem, challenge or need, then why are we doing it? At the same time, we have to balance that with looking forward to new technological innovations that are on the cutting edge — when we can see that a future development may meet a customer’s needs even they may not see that right now. We have to bring that into it as well. A great example of that is adding digital signatures to Acrobat 4 four years ago. It’s only now that there are e-signature laws that have been passed or are about to be passed. It’s not quite fully implemented and known but it’s starting to take off. We need to ground it in the customer but also need to have an eye to the future and what we think will be important to that customer maybe several years out.’


PLANET PDF: It’s fair to say that over the years, and most especially during the product’s earliest iterations, that Acrobat has been a complex product to market. The multi-dimensional capabilities, and wide range of applications and industries for which it can be a viable productivity tool, can be both a blessing and a curse. Can you tell us a little about ways the marketing of Acrobat has evolved over the product versions and years?

ROSENBAUM: : ‘In Acrobat 1, we were trying to explain to people why they actually had a problem and what problem they had, and over time they got that and they saw that. When you look at what was introduced with Acrobat 1 and you look at what we have with Acrobat 6, you see a tremendous change in approach. Acrobat 1 was very much features, functionality and product; and that’s all it was. We had Acrobat Reader, Acrobat Exchange, Acrobat PDF Writer, Acrobat Distiller, Acrobat Network Distiller. It was totally about the product, not about the customer segment. Maturing over time, we’ve moved away from that.

Acrobat 3 was the first time we had everything in one box. What that enabled us to do was to start talking to customers at their level, instead of from a product and feature-set level.

Acrobat 6 Standard Box 1

What you see with Acrobat 6 is that it’s all about the customer segment: Acrobat Elements for the enterprise customers and general knowledge worker, Acrobat Standard for the general user and Acrobat Professional for the power users and high-end business users, engineers and creative pros. I think what we’ve infused in Acrobat over its life is a customer-centric perspective rather than a product- or technology-centric perspective. It’s been an evolutionary process.

Over time once you get a message or an understanding out in the market, you can take that as a new base level and then build beyond that. That’s how the evolution has happened over time. So now do we need to always start with the benefits of PDF? Probably not as much. It’s all cumulative — you’ve got to start somewhere and you keep building after that. From a marketing and communication perspective, a driving principle for Acrobat 6 is to be able to educate the customer and let them know what their choices are, and to help them self-select with the right kind of information. That information is, however, not features, but benefits. That’s what we’ve infused through all of our marketing information for Acrobat 6. What you’ll see with Acrobat 6 is that we lead with benefits and sometimes talk about features.’

PLANET PDF: Certainly one approach to dealing with the feature-rich dilemma is the product segmentation that Adobe has just announced for the forthcoming major upgrade, creating three distinct Acrobat products. Can you briefly share some of the internal thinking as to why this was the right time to segment the Acrobat product line? Related to that, can you briefly outline the key elements of the strategy to push Acrobat into the corporate enterprise?

ROSENBAUM: : ‘We have experienced more adoption by general business users or broad enterprises and learned a lot from those adoptions where we thought we could help catalyze that a bit better. A lot of it is the maturity of the market and our understanding, and our ability to reach out and touch that. When we think about an enterprise customer, it’s not a bunch of desktops and a bunch of servers, to us it’s a solution that’s going to bring a big benefit to that customer, whether that benefit is cost savings, time savings, the ability to automate their processes better, to conduct ebusiness, whatever it is, to enrich their value-chain relationships, it’s whatever that customer needs, that’s our target. That is probably going to include a mixture of desktop or client products as well as server products as well as our partners or alliance products. It’s a solution that we’re looking at.’

PLANET PDF: These new, high-end server products represent a new frontier for Adobe and PDF. It’s been an amazing journey so far, so like you and your colleagues, we’re eager to see what’s ahead for Acrobat 6.0 and the growing product family — including the server-based solutions.

This was great having the chance to hear some Acrobat and PDF tales from your unique perspective. Thanks for spending time with us again, Sarah!

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About the Author: Kurt Foss

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