Apr 14, 2005

The alchemist of paper

Source: Economist

Bruce Chizen, the boss of Adobe Systems, wants to end bureaucracy as we know it.

“IT’S exciting; we get to change society once again,” says Bruce Chizen, boss of Adobe Systems, the firm behind the popular PDF (or “portable-document-format”) files that are widely downloaded and e-mailed around nowadays. This is not, he adds, about making offices “paperless”, as some people—ludicrously, in retrospect—were predicting a decade ago. Instead, it is about bridging the separation between paper and electronic files in order to make all documents, in whatever form, “intelligent”, thereby blasting apart the way that paper-pushers in government and corporate bureaucracies work today.

If his vision becomes reality, it would be a remarkable vindication for Mr Chizen, who was not at Adobe when it last “changed society”—by launching the desktop-publishing revolution of the 1980s and early 1990s. John Warnock and Charles Geschke, Adobe’s bearded and boffinish founders, had invented PostScript, software that allows printers to reproduce text and graphics exactly as they appear on computer screens. It was followed by Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign, three applications used by creative types everywhere.

But Messrs Warnock and Geschke were lovable technophiles who proudly intoned that they were not in it for the money. As a result, Adobe never grew anything like as rich or powerful from its revolution as other software companies, notably Microsoft, did from their own. The founders realised during the 1990s that Adobe had to outgrow its “garage” culture. So they gradually handed over the firm to Mr Chizen, who had joined Adobe in 1994 as a marketing—and decidedly not an engineering—talent. Tough, and with a large dose of Brooklyn chutzpah, Mr Chizen in 1998 turned Adobe’s culture upside down, introducing hierarchies, performance reviews and the like. In 2000, he became chief executive, and the founders co-chairmen.

That allowed Mr Chizen to return to his main passion, salesmanship, and in particular to a software application called Acrobat, the one Adobe product that has always been targeted at the wider business (as opposed to the narrower graphics-and-design) market. Acrobat turns any file type into a PDF document that will look, on screen and in print, exactly as intended, regardless of the computer or operating system. To open an Acrobat file, viewers need a bit of viewing software, called Reader, which allows users to fill in on-screen forms.

In the 1990s, when the internet was young and broadband connections rare, Acrobat was going nowhere. Adobe initially charged for Reader, and with few Readers there were few reasons to buy Acrobat. But gradually things changed. Adobe started to give Reader away, and broadband connections became common. Today, Reader is becoming ubiquitous, creating a huge audience for PDF files, and thus a market for Acrobat.

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