John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · 12 December 2003
Electronic Documents
Adobe Systems just had another great quarter. They make money on industry-leading graphics software like Photoshop, but recently the real engine of growth has been boring old Acrobat, the product Adobe was reluctant to develop at all ten years ago. This is no surpise to me. Back in the spring of 2000 I was working at pharmaceutical research solutions startup when the FDA made the policy change to switch to electronic documents. This was very significant. FDA applications on paper are so voluminous they are delivered on palettes by forklifts. The advantages of PDF submissions are obvious. The implications of the change were also obvious: it would make Adobe Systems rich. I could see that the rest of government would soon follow the FDA and industry would follow after that.

By 2001 Adobe's stock price had climbed 1000% but ironically enough the gain had nothing to do with Acrobat--it was all .com hype. Now, however, we are seeing the real gains based on real earnings as their shares have quietly doubled in the last year with no hype. Acrobat has become a standard-operating-equipment purchase for an ever-widening range of white collar professionals and PDFs are becoming ubiquitous. The document-as-form potential of PDFs is expanding the revenue potential even more.

Let's take a step back and understand the history of Adobe's technology to analyze its strength. Around 1980 John Warnock and his boss left Xerox to independently develop a print/page description language (PDL) Warnock had created. This language, to be called "PostScript", was well-received and manufacturers of type-setting machines began to adopt it. PostScript achieved a signal success when Apple Computer chose it as the foundation of their printing architecture. The language allows all the elements of document such as text, images and layout to be rendered dynamically to a printer. The PostScript itself is actually a program that the printer runs to generate the document image. Typical PostScript looks like this:

%%Creator: dvips, version 5.399 (C) 1986-90 Radical Eye Software
%%Title: bigsurv.dvi
%%Pages: 67 1
%%BoundingBox: 0 0 612 792
/TeXDict 200 dict def TeXDict begin /N /def load def /B{bind def}N /S /exch
load def /X{S N}B /TR /translate load N /isls false N /vsize 10 N /@rigin{
isls{[0 1 -1 0 0 0]concat}if 72 Resolution div 72 VResolution div neg scale
Resolution VResolution vsize neg mul TR}B /@letter{/vsize 10 N}B /@landscape{
/isls true N /vsize -1 N}B /@a4{/vsize 10.6929133858 N}B /@legal{/vsize 13 N}
B /@manualfeed{statusdict /manualfeed true put}B /@copies{/#copies X}B /FMat[
1 0 0 -1 0 0]N /FBB[0 0 0 0]N /df{/sf 1 N /fntrx FMat N df-tail}B /dfs{div /sf
X /fntrx[sf 0 0 sf neg 0 0]N df-tail}B /df-tail{/nn 8 dict N nn begin
Postscript is more powerful than passive data formats like Hewlett-Packard's HP-GL/PCL but also requires greater memory and processing resources to execute. Originally this hindered the adoption of PostScript because PostScript-enabled printers were substantially more expensive. The cost was due to the additional memory and processing plus licensing fees. The licensing fees were not only for the PDL itself but for the high-quality fonts PostScript printers included. The processing was substantial and required the printer to have a fully fitted motherboard. In 1985 Apple insiders joked that the most powerful computer they sold was the LaserWriter--and it was true.

PostScript is much more widely available now because various companies have succeeded at length at creating PostScript-compatible language interpreters and including cheap font knockoffs. That this cloning process has taken so long and even now is imperfect is testament to how sophisticated and refined the PostScript language, its font system and its execution are.

Adobe's success with Acrobat is because it is taking this PDL technology from the printer and putting it on the screen. This allows the most sophisticated layout system known to be used to create electronic documents. Naturally when and if such a document prints it appears relatively identical to the screen image because the same interpretive technology is used to render it on both paper and screen.

Unfortunately John Warnock has retired and the plate spinners have settled in at Adobe which means innovation will slow there, but no matter because they need to do little other than to continue developing the Acrobat technology in obvious ways to succeed. The tidal wave of public adoption of electronic documents will carry them forward to ever-greater heights.

Developer Diary · · bio · Revised 12 December 2003 · Pure Content