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Adobe Co-Founder Charles Geschke Dead at 81

Dr. Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe and a pioneer of the desktop publishing revolution, passed away on 16 April 2021 at the age of 81. In the early 1980s, Geschke worked at Xerox PARC with fellow Adobe co-founder Dr. John Warnock, and the two developed Interpress, a language that described page layouts so they could be created, viewed, and printed with the same fidelity. Xerox, ever consistent in its inability to recognize and commercialize tremendous opportunities, passed on the idea. Geschke and Warnock left to found Adobe, where they developed PostScript. Of course, Xerox PARC also developed many graphical computing concepts that eventually inspired the Macintosh.

PostScript was the key that made desktop publishing possible. Steve Jobs licensed PostScript from Adobe to use in laser printers, and the original Apple LaserWriter was the first such PostScript printer to ship. Adobe went on to create or purchase apps in pretty much every category of graphical creative software, making the company a force in image editing, graphic design, publishing, illustration, animation, video, and much more.

Geschke was active in Adobe’s day-to-day affairs from its founding in 1982 to his retirement as president in 2000. He was co-chairman of the board with Warnock from 1997 through 2017 and remained a board member until April 2020. Despite the huge changes in design and creativity he and Warnock unleashed upon the world, Geschke led a life out of the spotlight often claimed by massively successful tech entrepreneurs.

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Comments About Adobe Co-Founder Charles Geschke Dead at 81

Notable Replies

  1. [Just moving this to a better thread… -Adam]

    I just stumbled across some sad news…an obituary for one of what once was the leaders of the Apple/Adobe revolution in digital typography, imagery, and document production and management, Chuck Geschke. He was the third member of the triumvirate between John Warnock and Steve Jobs, and the head of development for all Adobe products:

  2. Thank you for this lovely article! I only met Chuck a couple of times over the years, but he was always so kind. Amazing guy. I just read an interesting comment elsewhere: Chuck and John worked on something called Interpress at Xerox PARC. Xerox wasn’t interested in pursuing it further, so the two of them published information about Interpress in an academic journal! That way, when they left Xerox they could pick up working on the same basic ideas without any legal issues — because the information was already published. The result, of course, was PostScript.

    I started programming in PostScript around 1986, during a summer job. Even today, when I see people write PS as an abbreviation for Photoshop, I first thing, “postscript?!”

  3. I remember Interpress. It was the proprietary language used by Xerox Star/ViewPoint document workstations to talk with the network printers that integrated with them.

    Of course, this was after PostScript was released and in used by Apple LaserWriters. I remember asking why Xerox didn’t use a standard language like PostScript. It is only after reading your post that I realize the weird irony in that question!

    Regarding PostScript programming, I remember several amazing examples back in 1991.

    One was a crossword puzzle generator. You took a text file containing an ASCII-art representation of a crossword puzzle grid and the list of questions and prepended the PostScript program to it. Then send the entire file to the printer to get a newspaper-quality crossword page.

    The most impressive one was a Mandelbrot fractal generator. Append a line of text containing the coordinates to the file and send it to the printer. The printer’s in-use light would sit there blinking for 30 minutes as it computed the fractal, eventually printing a page with the result.

    I don’t know where I put that original file, but I found this similar one on GitHub: Simple Mandelbrot set generator in PostScript · GitHub

  4. Thanks for the insight! I was wondering how they got away with taking the idea for PostScript from Xerox. I’ve heard so many stories about how kind of a person Chuck was, which isn’t common in forward-thinking tech pioneers.

  5. The same way Steve Jobs walked away from Xerox with the Mouse. They failed to realize the potential of the these groundbreaking, earth shaking products. Xerox thought they were giving away stuff nobody would want to pay for:

  6. As the Newsweek article wrote, Xerox was only concerned with copiers and giant corporate accounts. They had no clue how valuable all the research from PARC was and they let it go to just about everybody.

    I’m not just talking about Apple buying a tour of the facility. I’m also talking about PARC engineers leaving with the patents and starting their own companies, often getting fabulously wealthy.

    This week’s obituary is about Charles Geschke, who (along with John Warnock) left PARC to found Adobe, basing PostScript on Xerox’s Interpress.

    And then there’s Bob Metcalfe who, while working at PARC, invented Ethernet. He left to found 3Com and collected patent royalties from all other companies shipping Ethernet devices.

    Looking down Wikipedia’s list of people associated with PARC, it’s an incredible list of innovators, all inventing things we know about, but very little of which was ever realized as Xerox products:

    • David DiFrancesco, co-founder of Pixar
    • John Ellenby, founder of GRiD Systems
    • Bruce Horn, who designed and developed the first MacOS Finder and resource manager.
    • Dan Ingalls, invented the byte-coded Smalltalk VM. The conceptual father of the Java VM and countless other byte-coded computing environments. Also invented the Bit Blit operation that is at the core of every GPU invented since then.
    • Alan Kay. I hope I don’t need to explain why he’s famous. :slight_smile:
    • Chuck Thacker, co-invented Ethernet. Also invented the laser printer.
    • David Smith, invented key GUI concepts including the desktop, icons and dialog boxes.
    • John Shoch, inventor of the “PUP” network protocol, which later evolved into TCP/IP.
  7. One of the ex-Xeroxers mentioned, David DiFrancesco, was part of the Steve Jobs’ Pixar acquisition; he was the Director of the Photoscience Team.

    Steve Jobs walked away with Pixar for just $5,000,000 + a capital investment of $5,000,000 to cover the company’s debts. George Lucas got hit with a mega divorce settlement and was falling behind on his alimony payments, and Pixar was hemorrhaging cash and falling deeper and deeper into the red.

    Steve recognized the potential of good technology when he saw it, and he as not one to “give a sucker an even break.” He originally tried to get Apple to buy Pixar, but the Board unilaterally turned it down.

  8. Yeah, it’s astounding how much talent and ground-breaking technology Xerox let slip away.

  9. That’s incorrect.

    Apple was already working on the Lisa when Jobs and some key Apple engineers visited PARC. At the time, the Lisa already supported a mouse, but that pointing device wasn’t nearly as integral to the interactions with the machine as it was on the Alto or Star.

    Speaking of that visit, here’s a fascinating quote from Bill Atkinson, who accompanied Jobs to PARC:

    In hindsight I would rather we’d never gone. Those one and half hours tainted everything we did, and so much of what we did was original research.

  10. If you’d like to learn more about Geschke’s (and Warnock’s and so many others’) time at PARC, and about PARC’s genesis story in general, treat yourself to this fabulous read:

    “Dealers of Lightning — Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age” by Michael Hiltzik.

    This is literally the single best book on computer history that I’ve ever read, and it provides insights a coherent history of, and insights into, PARC that you’ll hardly find anyplace else.

    (One chapter is, of course, dedicated to Apple’s visit to PARC. The Atkinson quote in my response to MMTalker is taken from that chapter.)

  11. I wish that Xerox wasn’t such an exception. Imagine how many great ideas are locked up in companies that jealously guard their intellectual property.

  12. I don’t think its as many as you think. Xerox PARC was a rare exception.

    Most companies release products based on their IP. Apple, Intel, IBM, Google and countless others. They aren’t giving away the crown jewels for free, of course, but the aren’t burying it in a vault either.

    And today, companies are quite willing to release tech as open source if it isn’t part of their core business model. This is, for example, why Apple released Swift to the public, why Google released TensorFlow, why IBM has made massive contributions to Linux, etc.

    The business model today is (generally) companies keeping secret any tech that comprises their core business, releasing closed-source products based on it, and releasing to the public any ancillary technologies that were developed to support the secret tech but that the company doesn’t want to invest the manpower to properly support.

  13. Swift was, and still is, very critical to Apple’s core business model. It not only facilitated development and speed to market of apps from their existing list of developers, it made things way, way easier and faster for new iOS and Mac developers to build and regularly update apps and enabled more new developers to enter the Apple ecosystem.

    Remember the old days when so many developers released apps for Windows way before Macs? And when Adobe and others were talking about ending development for Macs for many of their products? Because of Swift, there are a lot more developers building, releasing and regularly updating Mac and iOS apps, often before Android or Windows stuff.

  14. Swift is not Apple’s core business. Selling electronic devices and apps to run on those devices is their core business.

    Apple doesn’t make any money off of Swift or Xcode. The entire benefit of these tools is to lower the cost of app development as far as possible. And if this means giving away the software for free, that’s OK. Which is why Xcode is a free download from the App Store and why the Swift compiler is open source:

    And it has been released using an Apache 2.0 license, meaning you can use it for any purpose, including closed-source commercial development, with minimal conditions. Swift LICENSE.txt.

    Apple is literally giving away this technology specifically because they don’t make money directly from it, but indirectly through the language’s adoption. It’s in their best interest for as many people as possible to be developing apps in Swift, even if these apps aren’t for Apple platforms.

    Which is very different from, for example, Final Cut, which they sell for a significant amount of money and do not release source code of any kind.

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