As part of our ongoing reflection on the June 1993 introduction of Adobe Acrobat and PDF by Adobe Systems, Planet PDF CEO Karl De Abrew is conducting a series of brief ‘Masters of the PDF Universe’ profiles with key members of the Planet PDF community. Today Karl talks with John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems, retired CEO and current Chairman of the Board — and perhaps most significantly in this venue, the mastermind behind Adobe Acrobat and the Portable Document Format (PDF). In his 1991 ‘Camelot’ report, later published on Planet PDF, Warnock publicly detailed for the first time the foundation for and concept of PDF. The rest, as they say, is history — and a rich one it is.
KARL DE ABREW: Today many Acrobat & PDF users will be familiar with you because of your work as the founder of Adobe Systems and creator of the Portable Document Format (PDF). What originally motivated you to create Acrobat/PDF?
JOHN WARNOCK: ‘I have been in the Computer business since 1961, and the problem of communicating documents has always been around. In the early years when most printers were impact printers, the approach was to separate form and content. SGML was invented to solve that problem. Unfortunately the SGML approach never quite solved the diversity needed in formatting complex documents.
When PostScript became a broadly based desktop standard driving raster devices, it occurred to me that by capturing the PostScript stream and redefining the imaging operators, we could write a small, static output stream that would accurately capture the ‘look’ of the document and give page independence.
Furthermore, we did not need ‘permission’ from any of the document-creation applications. (All other attempts at universal document formats actually needed companies to agree on the approach — which has been the death-nail of universal document formats).
It was always part of the plan to first accurately capture the look of the document, and then extend the format to capture the most important aspects of the document’s structure. I am happy to see this is happening.’
DE ABREW: Briefly describe the most significant change in the development or use of the technology, since you first designed Acrobat/PDF, and why do you consider it significant?
WARNOCK: ‘The most significant change in the development of PDF has been to add capabilities so that PDF documents and the computers that use them can mimic a wide variety of paper processes that occur in widely used business workflows.
These new capabilities amplify the economic benefits of using electronic documents, and can potentially really improve the efficiencies of a lot of businesses.’
DE ABREW: Acrobat and PDF are now used in so many industries and in so many ways, do you see new areas that haven’t perhaps been tapped much yet?
WARNOCK: ‘I think the imaging model upon which Acrobat is based can be used much more effectively on the Web. As we all know, simple things like printing are not easy or reliable in Web based applications. Using Acrobat technology can solve this problem and make everyone’s Internet experience much more enjoyable.
I also think PDF could be a much more flexible format for carrying all kinds of multi-media content. If, for instance, you look at the DVD spec, you will find one of the worst format designs on the planet. A PDF-based spec could do a much better, and more universal job.
One of PDF potential and important uses is as a rock-solid archiving format. Care must be taken to subset PDF in such a way so that this done robustly and correctly.’
DE ABREW: Acrobat has grown into a large, multi-function tool for use in so many areas — including document management, presentations, collaboration, forms and prepress — and it can be intimidating for new users. Is there a need for separating out this functionality to make it easier to use.
WARNOCK: ‘Acrobat and PDF-based technologies are very general and hard to understand. Once a user has used Acrobat extensively, then they finally ‘get it.’ I hope that over the years, people will develop a mental model of what it is and what it is good for. I don’t know whether splitting the product up will really solve the basic understanding problem.
DE ABREW: Pondering the future of Acrobat and/or PDF, what most excites you about the next few years?
WARNOCK: ‘The effective use of PDF within a corporate, educational or government environment can save huge amounts of time and money. It can also provide a wonderful cross platform communication medium that is not wedded to a particular operating system or computer type. I am most excited to see people find new and creative uses and benefits from the use of the technology. I still think we are in the early days of adoption, and that most of the economic benefit of using Acrobat/PDF are ahead of us.’
DE ABREW: Briefly describe a common misconception about or frequent problem you’ve seen with Acrobat/PDF that you’d like to try to clarify for others and/or provide a tip to address.
WARNOCK: ‘Acrobat is not a stand-alone application. It needs other authoring applications to make it whole. Because there is no other application quite like it, users have a very hard time putting it into a category.
Unfortunately, I think the only way to understand this thing is to use it.’