John Warnock - Father of PostScript
Thursday, 13 May 2021
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John Warnock - Father of PostScript
Adobe Systems


Adobe systems

Like most of the good ideas  developed at PARC, Xerox really didn't have a clue what to do  with it and so Warnock and Geschke left to form a company to do  the job.The company, Adobe Systems, was named after the creek that ran  past Warnock's garden in Los Altos (California).


At first Warnock  and Geschke seemed to have as much idea about how to market a  graphics language as Xerox. They planned to build a really  powerful printer and have users bring their work to service  bureaus. They quickly discovered that backers for a service  company were hard to find.

To make the product more like a  hardware product, they then switched to building workstations  plus laser printers but gave that up when they discovered that  other people had the same idea. Finally, they hit on the right one. They would market the PostScript language, fonts  and laser  printer controllers. In other words, become an OEM (Other Equipment Manufacturer) a supplier of software.

It is said that PostScript took 20 man-years of programmer time  to perfect. It was certainly the most complex piece of software  to be offered for use on the growing number of personal  computers. To run fast it needed a powerful computer all of its  own and for a while the cost of the hardware was a problem.

This  is where Apple and Steve Jobs enter the picture. Steve had  borrowed many of the ideas from Xerox Parc and many of the  personnel to create the Mac.

But the Mac wasn't the great seller that it should have been.  The 128KByte Mac of the time plus a dot-matrix printer just  wasn't a viable business system. In 1984 the HP LaserJet was just  beginning to make an impact in the PC world but it produced  output that looked like a typewriter. It really was just a dot  matrix printer brain inside a laser printer body.




Steve Jobs made  the bold decision to make a laser printer for the Mac with output  that looked typeset. To do it he wisely bought 15% of Adobe at a  cost of $2.5 million. The Apple LaserWriter was designed and  built by Apple including the controller card. Adobe supplied the  software and the fonts. The result was the desktop publishing  revolution and the rise of the Mac. You could say that it was the  LaserWriter that was the success and the Mac just happened to be  dragged along to fame and fortune by the printer cable.


With the success of the LaserWriter, PostScript established  itself as THE page description language. It was, and is, used not  only on laser printers but also by high resolution image setters.  This is only possible because the language is far more general in  design than the problem of printing to a laser printer ever  demanded.

This generality of design seems to be a tenet of John  Warnock's philosophy. Another seems to be theoretical purity.

PostScript was only just practical, in the sense that it still  needs a very powerful processor to run it. When Apple asked if it  was possible for Adobe to make one or two tweaks to speed it up  the answer was "no".

The PostScript language had to remain pure  and modifications and additions to the language-specific hardware  were an anathema to Adobe, and presumably to John Warnock in  particular. This is the weakness that comes with the strengths of  being a mathematician at heart.

Adobe has also been poor at  marketing and understanding their users over the years. You get  the impression that they don't know that users exist.

The crunch came in 1988 when Bill Gates asked Warnock for  PostScript code and fonts to be used in the next version of  Windows. He didn't want to pay for it, however, arguing that the  publicity would do Adobe good. John Warnock said "no" and as a  result Microsoft and Apple got together to produce their own font  technology. Apple actually informed Adobe that it would be  phasing out PostScript and sold the shares that they still had in Adobe. As a reaction Adobe announced ATM for the Mac, which  allowed Adobe fonts to be displayed on Mac screens long before  Microsoft and Apple could do the same thing.

Well it would have  if the product existed but they did at least put one programmer on the job straight away!

ATM was Adobe' second attempt at creating font technology for the  screen - the first being Display PostScript which they  unaccountably abandoned before it was completed. The alliance  between Microsoft and Apple never did bear any fruit  mainly  because Microsoft found font technology harder than anticipated.  Only later, after a split with Apple, did Microsoft offer an  alternative to Adobe fonts by way of TrueType in Windows 3.1.  With TrueType and ATM for Windows running in parallel the  Windows-using community had a difficult choice between two  similar font technologies.

Today Adobe is better known for its graphics editing technology - to PhotoShop has become a generic verb - even if there are other graphics editing programs. It was also  known for the Flash web technology which Steve Jobs too such a dislike too - I wonder why. The dislike was so intense that eventually Flash was killed off - an early example of cancel culture.

Today web technology and esspecially printers tend to be treated as black boxes that just print what appears on the screen. However Postscript is still important as it is the language used in Adobe's PDF - Portable Document Format - technology and it is still used in many high quality printers.


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Last Updated ( Thursday, 13 May 2021 )