In the very early 80's, a small team of developers at the XEROX Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) developed a new page description language and dubbed it Interpress. Like many innovations that were initially conceived at PARC, XEROX saw the value but failed to find a way to integrate it into their copier products in an economic way. And so, in 1982, two of the Interpress developers left PARC and started their own company, which they dubbed "Adobe", and from the ashes of Interpress the PostScript font system was born.
It is difficult to describe just how much of an impact a seemingly simple font system had on the computer industry at the time. You would have to imagine a world where, if you created a document yourself it would be limited to one of perhaps 4 typefaces. And by "typefaces" I mean almost any change at all to the type - the shape of the letters to be sure, but also size, italicization, etc. Four choices. If you were lucky enough to have one of the advanced IBM Selectric typewriters with the easily replaceable typehead.
Anything else - multiple font sizes, dropped-capitals, multiple typeface styles - was the sole purview of the "printer", a perennially ink-stained tradesman who plied their craft with equal parts ancient techniques (sheets of red film called rubylith, lead-based characters manually assembled on a block), mid-century mechanics (such as linotype systems) and modern technology (including Linotronic computers).
Postscript changed all of that. suddenly, for the price of a laser printer (which was still going to set you back $1,000 at the time, but still...) book-quality printing was possible.
Ironically, Postscript didn't have the effect on Adobe that the name implied. It wasn't a relatively minor end-note, sharing some ephemeral bit of slightly unrelated trivial. Postscript was, ironically, the start of something completely new - both for Adobe and the computer industry at large. Like so many of the truly revolutionary breakthroughs in IT, PostScript put power and control into the hands of all users.
Adobe remains one of the few companies that seems to be able to reinvent itself over and over, while retaining their core values. Having started off with font rendering, Adobe quickly leveraged that success by licensing and releasing various fonts to be used by the postscript system. As the computer industry matured, Adobe pivoted and developed Illustrator, a graphics design program. Building on that success, they released Photoshop a few years later. In 1993, Adobe returned to it's document rendering roots, but put a new spin on the idea by releasing it's PDF reader for free (the writer, of course, cost money). But the world of technology was changing, In 1991 they released Premier, a timeline-based video editing tool. Again, the world was changing, and through a series of acquisitions Adobe was able to change with it by releasing Dreamweaver, a web page editing suite.
My point in reviewing all of this history is to show that Adobe - unlike so many other tech companies - refuses to be defined by any of it's software products. They never settled for being "that company that created fonts". However, they also haven't forgotten their roots. If you look at the products developed internally and acquired, there is a through-line you can detect in all of them.
As modern IT professionals, there are a few lessons we can glean from all this.
The first is the perennial lesson that most of the XEROX PARC projects epitomize: XEROX had the vision to fund, create, and staff PARC but not the ability to see beyond their own copier-centric world view. PARC gave rise to technologies which shaped the IT industry for decades after: the GUI, WYSIWYG text editors, Interpress/Postscript, ethernet, object-oriented programming, cut-and-paste, fiber-optic networking, laser printers, the foundation of Unicode; not to mention folks who went on to found Pixar, GRID, Adobe, Alta-Vista, and SynOptics.
We cannot, as IT Professionals, afford to overlook radical ideas just because they don't fit into our world view. That goes for everything from a snippet of code to a choice of programming method to a platform.
The second lesson, as I stated earlier, is not to let our past limit our future. That is as true for our successes just as much as it is for our failures.
Finally, take a moment to appreciate an organization that is committed to remaining true to itself, while allowing and even embracing the possibility to grow, change, and improve. If we are able to bring that lesson to our work, discuss it with our families, and find ways to apply it to ourselves, how much better we all would be.
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