John Warnock, 1940-2023

The Adobe cofounder who revolutionized printing is gone at 82.

Washington Post, “John Warnock, Adobe CEO who led desktop publishing revolution, dies at 82

John Warnock, who played a seminal role in the history of computing as co-founder and chief executive of Adobe Inc., helping create the Portable Document Format (PDF) and software that turned computers into digital printing presses, radically reshaping office life and publishing, died Aug. 19 at 82.

Adobe announced his death and said the cause was pancreatic cancer. The company provided his biography in a PDF.

Mr. Warnock and Charles Geschke founded Adobe in 1982, naming it after a creek near their homes in Los Altos, Calif. PostScript, the company’s first piece of software, let computer users print documents just as they appeared on-screen, with graphics and multiple fonts — a task that previously required a trip to a local printing press.

Apple was the first company to adopt the software, integrating it into its new LaserWriter printer. Other printer manufacturers soon followed.

“When that first page came out of the LaserWriter, I was blown away,” Apple co-founder Steve Jobs told the tech journalist Pamela Pfiffner for her 2003 book “Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story.” “No one had seen anything like this before. I held this page up in my hand and said, ‘Who will not want that?’ I knew then, as did John, that this was going to have a profound impact.”

PostScript meant anyone essentially could run their own printing press, democratizing publishing and making Mr. Warnock and Geschke technological descendants of Johannes Gutenberg, the German inventor of the printing press. Adobe received letters and notes of thanks not long after the LaserWriter launched in 1985.

“The first note we got was from these ladies who told us how excited they were to be able to publish their magazine,” Dan Putnam, one of Adobe’s first employees, said in Pfiffner’s book. “It was a lesbian newsletter, kind of pornographic in nature. The second newsletter that arrived was from a fundamentalist Christian sect. It wasn’t exactly what we had in mind, but we gave them the voice to present their point of view.”

Jobs wanted to buy Adobe outright, but “we weren’t quite ready to be subservient to Steve,” Mr. Warnock told The Washington Post in 2021 after Geschke’s death.

Other dynamic duos in Silicon Valley were better known — Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, William Hewlett and David Packard at Hewlett-Packard — but Mr. Warnock and his co-founder led Adobe through a remarkable period of growth that made it one of the world’s largest software producers.

Most of the company’s initial growth derived from Acrobat, introduced in 1993. The software ushered in the paperless office by letting computer users share documents as PDFs, preserving fonts and graphics regardless of the underlying software that created them.

Acrobat did not catch on as quickly as PostScript.

In a meeting with IBM executives, “I explained how it worked, what its advantages were and how, from any application, you could send a completely portable document across platforms,” Mr. Warnock said in an interview with a business journal published ​​by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “They just sat there in the meeting with blank stares. They had no idea what I was talking about.”

He recalled thinking, “How stupid can the world be?”

Eventually, Acrobat’s merits became apparent.

“The Centers for Disease Control was one of our earliest and most fanatical adopters,” Mr. Warnock told the Wharton journal. “They said, ‘Do you know how many people’s lives we can save by sending these documents out to all of the field offices?’ … The IRS loved it.”

Adobe’s other notable publishing products include Photoshop, PageMaker and Illustrator.

Mr. Warnock, like Jobs, believed technology could serve a higher purpose.

“We always felt that Apple should stand at the intersection of art and technology, and John felt the same way about Adobe,” Jobs said. “John had a developed aesthetic sense, too. We meshed together well.”

Jobs and Adobe eventually would clash over Flash, Adobe’s streaming audio and video software, but the Apple co-founder maintained warm feelings toward Mr. Warnock. “John and I liked each other and trusted each other. I would have trusted him with my life, and I think he trusted me,” Jobs said.

In the early days of the blog, I posted alerts warning users if a link was to a PDF because opening it would often crash the browser. Whatever those issues were have long since stabilized and PDF is my default for archiving web files and for most of my professional life. While I still prefer books in hard copy, preferably hardcover, I far prefer article-length works in PDFs that I can annotate and archive.

That a semi-pornographic lesbian newsletter and a fundamentalist Christian one were among the first adopters of ScreenWriter is the sort of thing one can hardly make up.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    I was working in various companies (& law firms) during those early days. I look back with wonder at the difference illustrator, publisher (& later acrobat) made in my life. When I started out, cutting edge technology was a correcting typewriter ( which didn’t help when there were four carbons behind the original) and the looks of wonder you would get from people when you could demonstrate that what they saw on the screen was what would come out of the laser printer. I owe him a debt for how much fun my job could be.

  2. mattbernius says:

    The story of Postscript’s creation is an interesting story. Warnock and Geschke developed the foundation of it at XeroxParc. After a certain point, they realized that Xerox wasn’t interested in a tool that would allow for hardware-agnostic printing (since their business was selling printing hardware).

    Warnock and Geshke had a sense of the applications and wanted to develop it further. The problem, Xerox owned all the underlying intellectual property they had developed. There was no way they could leave and just keep working.

    Their solution was amazing. First, they stopped working on anything postscript related–at least officially–so they weren’t giving more over to Xerox. Next, they got permission from management to start to academically publish their work. They figured out what all the core theory/technology underpinnings were for taking Postscript forward and then presented and published all of that material. That enabled the ideas to enter the public sphere (i.e. throw them over the walls of Xerox).

    Once they got everything out, Warnock and Geschke then cashed out of Xerox, immediately picked up those ideas and kept on working on Postscript. And as all of that was going on, Apple was in ascendence and working (with other ideas from XeroxParc with the serial number filed off) on a more graphically centric form of computing (which extended all the way to the printer–moving away for dot matrix printers which were the norm at the time).

    The rest is history.

  3. DK says:

    Quite a legacy. R.I.P. sir.

    Wait a minute, people who were born in the 40s are in their 80s?!


  4. Mister Bluster says:


    Depends on when your parental units took a roll in the hay. I was born in ‘48.
    I’m “only” 75.

  5. Jay L Gischer says:

    I just came here to say that it’s guys like John Warnock that make me proud to be a part of all the things that have happened (and are still happening) here in Silicon Valley. Vaya con Dios!