John Warnock, founder of Adobe Systems, whose innovations in computer graphics, including the ubiquitous PDF, made today’s visually rich digital experiences possible, died Saturday at his home in Los Altos, California. He was 82 years old.
The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, Adobe, founded by Warnock and Chuck Geschke in 1982, said in a statement.
Until Warnock and Adobe came along, desktop printing was an arduous, expensive, and unsatisfying task. Users depended on a noisy printer with its pixelated text, or a specialized typesetter that could cost $10,000 and take up most of a room.
Warnock developed protocols that were loaded into the desktop printers themselves and that accurately reproduced what a computer sent them. Adobe’s first protocol of its kind, PostScript, was included in Apple’s revolutionary LaserWriter, released in 1985, and within a few years became the industry standard.
PostScript, licensed to hundreds of software and hardware companies, helped make Adobe rich. But the company was virtually unknown to the public until 1993, when it introduced Acrobat, a program designed to render and read files in what it called the Portable Document Format, or PDF.
The PDF was the result of Warnock’s ongoing obsession since university: finding a way to ensure that graphics displayed on one computer—whether words or images—look exactly the same on another computer, or on a page from a printer, regardless of manufacturer. .
“It was a Holy Grail in computer science to figure out how to communicate documents,” he said in a 2019 interview with the University of Oxford.
Acrobat and PDF were not immediately successful, even after Adobe made its Acrobat Reader free to download. The company’s board wanted to retire them, but Warnock persisted.
“I think the crossover point is if I can go to General Motors and say, ‘I can deliver your information faster and cheaper than you can on paper,'” he told The New York Times in 1991. is talking about saving tens of millions of dollars.”
PDF eventually became the standard as the ease of sharing crisp, sharp documents between computer systems made the long-awaited paperless office a reality.
While Adobe is best known for PDF, it owes its dominance in the software industry to a whole suite of design programs championed by Warnock over the years, including InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator.
Together, these programs have helped make the modern personal computing experience what it is, transforming what was once a soup of obscure commands and monochrome images into an immersive aesthetic experience.
“Turning the computer into a machine that we can use to produce visual and print culture, that wasn’t predestined,” David Brock, director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of Computer History in Mountain View, Calif., said in a telephone interview. “That’s where he was really instrumental.”
John Edward Warnock was born on October 6, 1940, in Holladay, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. His father, Clarence, was a lawyer; his mother, Dorothy (Van Dyke) Warnock, was a housewife.
Warnock admitted to being an average high school student who managed to flunk algebra in high school. Nevertheless, he studied mathematics at the University of Utah, earning his undergraduate degree in 1961 and a master’s degree in the same field in 1964.
He didn’t initially plan to go into technology, but a grueling summer job in graduate school, spent retreading tires, convinced him to apply to IBM, which was recruiting mathematicians.
Warnock returned to Utah to pursue a doctorate in mathematics, but after a few years switched to electrical engineering, which at the time encompassed computer science. The university recently received a huge amount of funding from the Department of Defense to work on computer graphics, an area that piqued its interest.
He was especially captivated by the question of how to render a three-dimensional image in two dimensions. The result was the Warnock algorithm, a major advance in computer graphics and the basis for some of his later work at Adobe.
He married Marva Mullins in 1965. In addition to his wife, Warnock is survived by their daughter, Alyssa; their sons, Christopher and Jeffrey; and four grandchildren.
Warnock completed his doctorate in 1969 and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work for a company founded by two of his mentors in Utah, David C. Evans and Ivan Sutherland. After being asked to transfer to the company’s Salt Lake City office, Warnock decided to stay in California and go to work for Xerox, whose Research Center in Palo Alto was then a pioneer in the development of the first personal computers.
There he met Geschke and the two became fast friends. Warnock spent years working on how to get printers to reproduce an image of a computer screen, a seemingly easy problem that baffled computer scientists for years. (Geschke died in 2021).
When he presented his solution, InterPress, to his bosses, they weren’t interested in releasing it to the public. He and Geschke, who worked on the project, were disheartened.
“I went into his office and said, ‘We can either live in the biggest sandbox in the world for the rest of our lives, or we can do something about it,'” Warnock said in a 2018 interview with the Computer History Museum.
Both resigned and, in late 1982, founded Adobe Systems, named after a creek near Warnock’s home. In 2023, it had a market value of US$235 billion, making it one of the largest information technology companies in the world.