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.

John Edward Warnock was born in Salt Lake City on Oct. 6, 1940. His father was a prominent lawyer.

He struggled academically, failing ninth-grade algebra. After telling a high school guidance counselor he wanted become an engineer, she told him to consider another career. But by the time he graduated, John was acing every math problem he encountered.

“I had an amazing teacher,” Mr. Warnock recalled, “… who, essentially, completely turned me around. He was really good at getting you to love mathematics, and that’s when I got into it.”

Mr. Warnock studied math and philosophy at the University of Utah, graduating in 1961. He stayed at the university, receiving a master’s degree in math in 1964 and a doctorate in electrical engineering in 1969.

He met Geschke while both worked as computer scientists at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). They developed a printing protocol for computers and printers to communicate, but Xerox decided not to release it, so Mr. Warnock and Geschke left to start Adobe. They based PostScript on lessons they learned at PARC.

Mr. Warnock served as chief executive for 16 years, retiring in 2001. President Barack Obama awarded Mr. Warnock and Geschke the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008

In 1965, he married Marva Mullins. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children.

Mr. Warnock keenly understood the disruptive power of his software, especially in combination with the internet. In a 2001 interview with the Associated Press, he was asked whether paper would one day lose its importance.

“It will as a transportation media,” he said. “If you think of paper as something you hold and read, I don’t think it’ll lose its importance for that, but in getting that information from me to you, I think it will.”

Knight-Ridder, the once-powerful and now defunct newspaper chain, was one of several companies that appointed Mr. Warnock to their boards.

“At the first board meeting,” Mr. Warnock recalled in a separate Wharton business journal interview, “I said, ‘You guys need to decide whether you are in the communication business or in the newspaper business.’ And I said, ‘If you decide that you are in the newspaper business, you’re toast.’”