Friday 27 September 2013

The True Hero of Adobe Systems

My first encounter with Adobe Systems was in 1987 when I purchased my first Apple computer and acquired an application program called Illustrator. This was version 1.0 and it was black and white only. The big green box it came in included a manual and a VHS video of John Warnock himself (founder of Adobe Systems). Behind him, on the desk, you can see one of the original Macintosh computers (with the 5 inch display). Illustrator was Mac only back then.

Because this was such an innovative new application, Dr. Warnock wanted to demonstrate to the purchaser what the program could do. He suggested using a scanner to capture a drawing and then convert it to vectors by tracing over it. The beauty of vector data, of course, is that it is "resolution independent." This means the coordinates described in its "page description" are relative to the device displaying the file. So if you draw a circle and print it on an ordinary piece of letter-sized paper, the proportions and attributes of the circle are still exactly the same even if it's also scaled up and printed on the side of a building or down to fit on the head of a pin. Size and scale do not affect the relative locations of coordinates.

The name "Illustrator" comes directly from the evolution of the Postscript page description language. As the developer of the original language concepts, Dr. Warnock's idea goes back to 1976 when he was working at Evans & Sutherland (I'll have to leave Ivan Sutherland for a future entry). Later, at Adobe Systems, in order to visualize the features of Postscript, Warnock's team created a user interface depicting "operators" such as gray value (percentage of black) and fill, line weight, endpoints, and lots more. When they saw how well it worked at illustrating the language, they realized the name of the program was obvious.

I am really condensing an enormous amount of history and technology here, but I don't want to get caught up in immense detail (I studied Postscript Display Programming in Boston at Adobe Systems - does anyone remember the red, blue and green books published by Addison-Wesley?) Instead, my main goal here is to include a note about the parametric curve named after Pierre Bézier who used a polynomial form to control, descibe and design curves and surfaces. This field of mathematics was made famous by Mr. Bézier and the French automakers Citroen and Renault (I'll have to save that for another future entry too). Dr. Warnock included a 2-dimensional version of Bézier's curve "control" in his vector language environment.

Around 1990 I was working full-time with Illustrator doing graphics for books and magazines and writing articles about how to print computer files commercially. Back then there were a few people who worked and shared information in the computer illustration & design field including Simon Tuckett and Louis Fishauff. These were early days. Back then we had problematic issues with gradients, colour and print resolution.

There were also no web browsers back then and very little background documentation about the curve geometry or Mr. Bezier. So I wrote a letter to Dr. Warnock to ask him about it. To my incredible surprise and delight, he sent me a personal fax about 8 pages long about how and why he incorporated parametric spline technology into Postscript.

He began his letter by saying he "did not normally do this," but I guess I must have touched a sensitive spot. I was beyond thrilled! I got the exact information I needed from the man himself! Of course, today Adobe Systems is pretty well the biggest and best software developer on Earth with programs such as Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Premiere and more. Dr. Warnock was Chairman and CEO until he retired in 2001. I believe he still co-chairs the corporation along with his old partner Charles Geschke. He is one of my personal heroes. Thank you Dr. Warnock!

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