Adobe’s John Warnock on Balancing Open Standards with Proprietary Software — and Maybe Calling Steve Jobs

Adobe Systems' John Warnock

Photo: Copyright © 2009, Kendall Whitehouse

Adobe Systems co-founder and co-chairman John Warnock in his home. The stone carving of the Latin alphabet by stone carver and calligrapher Nick Benson was a gift from his wife on his retirement as CEO of Adobe.


Knowledge@Wharton published an interview I did with Adobe Systems co-founder and co-chairman John Warnock. Warnock discusses topics ranging from the origins of the company he founded with Chuck Geschke to the reason he doesn’t like to use Microsoft software and why he may personally call Steve Jobs to discuss putting Adobe’s Flash on Apple’s iPhone.

Throughout the conversation, Warnock’s passion for both technology and design is evident. He possesses deeply held believes about a what is technologically “right” and aesthetically pleasing — and has little tolerance for things that are neither. For example, he avoids using Microsoft software because the company “has never had good taste” and their products aren’t “cool.”

Over the years that passion for excellence has been one of Adobe’s greatest assets. Yet, at times, it has also been a liability. This sense of perfection drove many of the company’s innovations — including PostScript, high-quality (Type 1) computer fonts, and Acrobat’s Portable Document Format (PDF). It also caused Adobe to often dismiss the web because of its perceived lack of aesthetics. As Warnock put it:

The early versions of HTML — from a design point of view — were awful.  There was nothing beautiful about it…. We were always searching for: How can we do this right?

While Adobe strives to make many of its file formats de facto standards, Warnock expresses  disdain for official standards bodies, saying:

Standards bodies are horrible, horrible, horrible things. They design by committee. The things that come out of them are a hodgepodge of stuff.

Adobe prefers to go it alone. As Warnock states, “The only way to make standards is to get them out and just compete.” In doing so, Adobe has sought to strike a balance between providing public standards and marketing proprietary software. Adobe’s approach has been to openly publish the specifications of the company’s key file formats — in some sense, the “crown jewels” of their technology — while trusting they can make enough profit from selling the software to create and manipulate those formats.

In several instances this has worked well, such as with PostScript and PDF. The adoption of these formats paved way for two of the major shifts in computing — the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-1980s and the creation of cross-platform electronic documents in the mid-1990s. It has also helped to make Adobe Systems a very profitable company.

Getting your company’s file format adopted as a universal standard can be challenging, however. While Adobe has been successful in doing this with PostScript and PDF, Adobe’s Type 1 font format ran into problems. Adobe initially failed to strike that delicate balance between being open and being closed, keeping key elements of the font format a secret. The resulting competitive pressures split the industry into two competing formats — Type 1 from Adobe and TrueType supported by Apple and Microsoft. Although the OpenType format now largely reconciles these two approaches, Warnock believes that the Type 1 format has, in his view, “always been … a better solution than TrueType.”

And now Adobe’s Flash platform for rich Internet applications — which long ago achieved ubiquity on desktop computers — faces an uphill battle to achieve a similar dominance on smartphones. Adobe’s inability convince Apple to support Flash on the iPhone has been a particularly irksome problem for the company.

Having great technology doesn’t always tip the market in your favor. It’s also about relationships and lining up industry partners. Apple was a key early adopter of Adobe’s PostScript technology; PostScript’s inclusion in Apple’s LaserWriter helped to make it the standard output format for desktop publishing. Now, as the locus of computing moves from the desktop to mobile platforms, Apple presents a barrier to Flash becoming ubiquitous across all devices. Given the longstanding relationship between the two men, I asked Warnock whether he has reached out to Jobs personally:

Knowledge@Wharton: Have you talked to Steve Jobs about [getting Flash on the iPhone]?

Warnock: No, I haven’t.

Knowledge@Wharton: Have you thought about calling him?

Warnock: I’ve thought about calling him and saying, “Steve, you know, at this point you want might to engage the partnership again.”  Because I think otherwise he is going to get some competitive pressures from outside that he is not going to like.

He has never been great at hitting that middle ground [between] openness and proprietary [products]. He has always seemed to lean to the proprietary side, to want to own everything. I think this is one case where he probably would do better if he didn’t do that.

To read the full interview with Warnock, see:

Knowledge@Wharton: “Adobe Systems Co-founder John Warnock on the Competitive Advantages of Aesthetics and the ‘Right’ Technology

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4 Responses to Adobe’s John Warnock on Balancing Open Standards with Proprietary Software — and Maybe Calling Steve Jobs

  1. Anonymous says:

    Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!

  2. Anna says:

    Your blog has made me think about an issue from another perspective. This is quite rare when I change my opinion about such issues but it looks that you’ve done it. The day has started with something new! Thank you!

  3. Anthony boyd says:

    What about Photoshop for iPhone, iPad, and other tablets??? I have the thought of a painter true artist painting a website with his fingers then pounding keys and a mouse pad. I would love to help develop software for the PH.

    Anthony

  4. Vernice says:

    I absolutely agree with Anthony, he is definitely right but I’m afraid iPhone, iPad, and other tablets will not that be easy to run the Photoshop especially when it is cs5. On the contrary I salute to John Warnock for being a good CEO of adobe through the years.

    Vernice

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