The Washington Post

Adobe co-founder helped usher in the desktop publishing revolution

- BY HARRISON SMITH harrison.smith@washpost.com

As a young man in Cleveland, Charles Geschke was fascinated by the science behind letterpres­s printing. His father and grandfathe­r were both photoengra­vers, and the family seemed to have a special talent for using copper plates to transfer images onto newspaper, book and magazine pages.

But his father urged him not to enter the printing industry, calling it “a dirty business” and telling him to “stick to the books and find something else to do.”

Dr. Geschke followed that advice, up to a point. After studying for the priesthood and then earning a classics degree, he decided on a career trajectory more practical than ancient Greek and Latin. Armed with advanced degrees in math and computer science, he became a research scientist at Xerox. In 1982, he partnered with a colleague, John Warnock, to co-found Adobe Systems, a Silicon Valley start-up that they named for a creek near their homes in Los Altos, Calif.

Their first product, a computer language known as Postscript, enabled people to print documents just as they appeared on a computer screen, using any brand of printer — and brought Dr. Geschke into the industry his father had warned him against.

The technology upended mechanical printing, ushered in a desktop publishing revolution and astonished Dr. Geschke’s father, who took out his loupe, examined a set of characters printed with Postscript and declared that their quality “would be good enough for fine printing,” as Dr. Geschke’s wife, Nan, recalled in an interview.

Dr. Geschke helped build Adobe into one of the world’s largest software companies, with a current market value of about $250 billion. He served as Adobe’s chief operating officer, president and co-chairman before his death April 16 at age 81, at his home in Los Altos. He had melanoma, Nan Geschke said.

Through the joint leadership of Dr. Geschke and Warnock, who served as Adobe’s longtime chief executive and co-chairman, the company became known for graphic design and editing software such as Adobe Acrobat, Illustrato­r, Indesign, Photoshop and Premiere. In 1993, Adobe also unveiled the portable document format, or PDF, a nowubiquit­ous file type that advanced its founders’ vision of a paperless office, enabling people to share files electronic­ally even if their applicatio­n software or operating systems are different.

In a phone interview, Warnock described Dr. Geschke as an even-tempered manager, “liked by all the people who ever worked with him. I was more the technologi­st, even though he was very strong with technology. We never disagreed in 43 years — which I think is freaking amazing.” He and Dr. Geschke received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama in 2009.

The two business partners first worked together as computer scientists at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a cradle of digital innovation where they bonded in part because they both refereed soccer games and had beards, a math background and three children each.

They also shared an interest in taking technology out of the lab and into the world. When Xerox executives decided not to release Interpress, a precursor to PostScript, Dr. Geschke and Warnock decided to quit and develop a version of the computer language on their own.

“I was starting to look at my career,” Dr. Geschke recalled in an interview for the national technology medal, “and thinking, God, I’m going to become old and gray doing really innovative and fun things, but they may never get out into the world. And so only I will know about them. And that’s not what an engineer lives for.”

Soon after starting Adobe, they got a call from Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder and Silicon Valley upstart, who offered to buy their company. The business partners turned him down — “We weren’t quite ready to be subservien­t to Steve,” Warnock said — but worked with Jobs to incorporat­e Postscript into the Laserwrite­r, a mass-market laser printer that Apple released in 1985.

Together, the Apple hardware and Adobe software combined to form the first desktop publishing system, according to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. “This new approach allowed business users to greatly improve the quality and efficiency of their document production, spawning an entire industry,” the museum wrote in a tribute to Dr. Geschke.

The company’s profits attracted notice, for better and worse. On a spring day in 1992, Dr. Geschke parked his Mercedes sports coupe outside Adobe’s Mountain View headquarte­rs, where a young man with a map asked him for directions. “But then the man pulled the map back, and Chuck was looking at a very large gun pointed at him,” Bruce Nakao, another Adobe executive, later told the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Geschke was kidnapped and driven 60 miles to a house in the city of Hollister, where an FBI SWAT team found him five days later, unharmed but gagged, handcuffed and blindfolde­d in a closet with chains on his legs. His two captors, who had demanded a $650,000 ransom, were later sentenced to life in prison.

In an interview, Nan Geschke said the federal agents, wearing black uniforms and going into the house with guns drawn, “didn’t really expect to find him alive.” When Dr. Geschke was freed from the closet, she added, he emerged in a state of shock. “He walked out and looked at all these agents who were there. He turned to them and said, ‘I always thought angels wore white. But now I know angels wear black.’ ”

Charles Matthew Geschke, known as Chuck, was born in Cleveland on Sept. 11, 1939. His mother was a paralegal who became a homemaker after the birth of her only child. He graduated from a Catholic high school at 16 and entered a Jesuit seminary in Milford, Ohio, where he studied for three years before dropping out to enroll at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

He graduated in 1962 — becoming the first member of his family to get a college diploma — and received a master’s degree in math the next year. While studying for a PHD at what became Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he taught at nearby John Carroll University, where one of his former students offered to give him a crash course in computer programmin­g.

Dr. Geschke soon wrote his first computer program, which he used to print mailing labels for the birth announceme­nt of his second child. He was so intrigued by computers that he traded one PHD program for another, successful­ly applying for a doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1972, he received his degree and joined Xerox.

He later led Adobe as president from 1989 until retiring in 2000 and served as co-chairman until 2017, retaining the title of emeritus board member in recent years. In the 1990s, he and Warnock steered the company through what became known as the Font Wars, in which Microsoft and Apple unsuccessf­ully attempted to edge Adobe out of the typeface market.

Dr. Geschke was also a former board chairman of the Jesuitfoun­ded University of San Francisco and served on the boards of the San Francisco Symphony and the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club in Massachuse­tts, where he spent part of the year with his wife, the former Nan McDonough. They were married in 1964.

In addition to his wife, of Los Altos, survivors include three children, Peter Geschke of Fremont, Calif., Kathy Orciuoli of Atherton, Calif., and John Geschke of Los Altos; and seven grandchild­ren.

While trying to get Adobe off the ground in the 1980s, Dr. Geschke made a point of coming home for dinner each night to spend time with his teenage children, his wife said. Employees were discourage­d from staying late at the office, she added, and given a computer terminal for home use in case they needed to work after dinner.

Dr. Geschke often spoke of promoting a people-oriented culture at Adobe, where he described his employees as members of one big family.

“Every capital asset we have at Adobe gets into an automobile and drives home at night,” he told Industrywe­ek in 1996. “Without them, there is nothing of substance in this company. It is the creativity of individual­s — not machines — that determines the success of this company.”

 ?? RICHARD DREW/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Adobe’s Charles Geschke, seen in 1999, developed technology that upended mechanical printing with his co-founder, John Warnock.
RICHARD DREW/ASSOCIATED PRESS Adobe’s Charles Geschke, seen in 1999, developed technology that upended mechanical printing with his co-founder, John Warnock.

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