Even accounting for personal vanity, I think it’s fair to say that I’m not an old man. Still, I sometimes find myself looking back to the halcyon days of early 2001, when I attended my first official conference as a member of the PDF community. That’s right, I said ‘community.’ In those simpler times, the PDF development community was a very friendly crowd — to the point of its own financial detriment, in many cases — and the more cutthroat PDF industry of today was barely a gleam in the eye of prospective entrepreneurs. In fact, it could be fair to say that the PDF format and the community that had grown up around it reflected the shared philosophy of Adobe’s technophilic founders, John Warnock and Charles Geschke. Both alumni of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, Warnock and Geshke proudly proclaimed that they were not in it for the money. What’s more is that they were far from alone.
The openness of the PDF specification and free availability of the Acrobat SDK meant that there were next to no overheads associated with building and selling a PDF product, and many people had done just that. The playing field was level, because almost nobody was doing any real marketing, and a lot of products were bought solely on the strength of good word-of-mouth. There was a collective sense of experimental exhilaration and solidarity in those more innocent times, where the ‘Wow’ factor meant more than the bottom line to many of the PDF faithful.
At the time of the show, Acrobat still trailed Photoshop as Adobe’s flagship application, and I was the manager of an online software store for PDF-related products. Quite frankly, I was both surprised and comforted by the level of co-operation between different third party developers. Non-competition agreements abounded, and in many circles, the release of a directly competing product was considered impolite at best. Due to PDF’s print-related origins, functionality in the prepress and print output sectors was closer to saturation, meaning that all but the most original new vendors in that area had to go head-to-head with existing players in order to carve out a niche for their solutions. By contrast, the relatively new electronic document sector had not yet reached this point and there was a strong feeling that there was enough room for everyone.
In many ways, that conference — a Seybold show in Boston — marked the end of an era. Barely a month before the show, Adobe co-founder John Warnock announced his intention to follow longtime partner-in-crime Charles Geshke into retirement, handing the reins to savvy rising star Bruce Chizen. Chizen had joined the company in 1994, and by 1998, had already helped to shake things up. Amidst sagging stock prices and stalled product sales, Chizen had turned company culture on its head, introducing hierarchies, performance reviews, and the like, working on the general ‘corporatization’ of Adobe. It ultimately improved the company, and Adobe has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Once the major functional areas in the electronic document space were covered, competition was no longer taboo; 3rd-party PDF culture gradually became more like that of traditional industries, mirroring the changes in Adobe. The shift was inevitable: today, Adobe and most of the surviving 3rd-party vendors now run slick, efficient, and above all, competitive businesses. Once competition became the norm rather than the exception, efficient business processes and high-impact marketing strategies became necessary measures to stay profitable. Still, I can’t help but mourn a little for the sense of the frontier and warm camaraderie of the PDF community, circa 2001.