Technology

John Warnock, Inventor of the PDF, Dies at 82


John Warnock, a founder of Adobe Systems whose innovations in computer graphics, including the ubiquitous PDF, made possible today’s visually rich digital experiences, died on Aug. 19 at his home in Los Altos, Calif. He was 82.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, Adobe, which Dr. Warnock started in 1982 with Chuck Geschke, said in a statement.

Until Dr. Warnock and Adobe came along, desktop printing was an arduous, expensive and unsatisfying endeavor. Users relied on either a screechy dot-matrix printer, with its pixelated text, or a specialized typesetting machine, which could cost $10,000 and take up most of a room.

Dr. Warnock developed protocols that came loaded into desktop printers themselves, and that accurately rendered what a computer sent them. Adobe’s first such protocol, PostScript, went into Apple’s revolutionary LaserWriter, released in 1985, and within a few years it was the industry standard.

PostScript, licensed to hundreds of software and hardware companies, helped make Adobe rich. But the company was largely unknown to the public until 1993, when it released Acrobat, a program designed to render and read files in what it called a Portable Document Format, or PDF.

The PDF was the result of Dr. Warnock’s abiding obsession since graduate school: finding a way to ensure that the graphics displayed on one computer — whether words or images — looked the exact same on another computer, or on a page from a printer, regardless of the manufacturer.

“It had been a holy grail in computer science to figure out how to communicate documents,” he said in a 2019 interview with Oxford University.

Acrobat and the PDF were not immediately successful, even after Adobe made its Acrobat Reader free to download. The company’s board wanted to retire them, but Dr. Warnock persisted.

“I think the crossover point is if I can go to General Motors and say, ‘I can deliver your information more quickly and more cheaply than you can on paper,’” he told The New York Times in 1991. “You’re talking about savings of tens of millions of dollars.”

The PDF eventually became standard, as the ease of sharing crisp, accurate documents across computer systems made the long-envisioned paperless office a reality.

Though Adobe is best known for the PDF, it owes its dominance in the software industry to a whole suite of design programs championed by Dr. Warnock over the years, including InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator.

Taken together, these programs helped make the modern personal computing experience what it is, turning what had been a soup of obscure commands and monochromatic images into an engaging aesthetic experience.

“Making the computer into a machine that we can use to produce visual and print culture, that wasn’t foreordained,” David Brock, the director of curatorial affairs at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., said in a phone interview. “That’s where he was really instrumental.”

John Edward Warnock was born on Oct. 6, 1940, in Holladay, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. His father, Clarence, was a lawyer; his mother, Dorothy (Van Dyke) Warnock, was a homemaker.

John was an admittedly average high school student who managed to flunk algebra in ninth grade. Nevertheless, he studied mathematics at the University of Utah, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1961 and a master’s in the same subject in 1964.

He did not initially plan to go into technology. But a grueling summer job during graduate school spent recapping tires persuaded him to apply to IBM, which was recruiting mathematicians.

He returned to Utah to pursue a doctorate in mathematics, but after a few years he switched to electrical engineering, which at the time encompassed computer science. The university had recently received an enormous influx of money and resources from the Department of Defense to work on computer graphics, a field that had captured his interest.

He was especially captivated by the question of how to render a three-dimensional image in two dimensions. The result was the Warnock algorithm, a major step forward in computer graphics and the basis for some of his later work at Adobe.

He married Marva Mullins in 1965. She survives him, as do his daughter, Alyssa; his sons, Christopher and Jeffrey; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Warnock received his doctorate in 1969 and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work for a company founded by two of his mentors at Utah, David C. Evans and Ivan Sutherland. After they asked him to transfer to the company’s Salt Lake City office he decided to stay in California instead and went to work for Xerox, whose Palo Alto Research Center was then pioneering the first personal computers.

There he met Dr. Geschke, and the two became fast friends. Dr. Warnock spent years working on how to get printers to render an image from a computer screen, a seemingly easy issue that had befuddled computer scientists for years. (Dr. Geschke died in 2021).

But when he presented his solution, InterPress, to his bosses, they were not interested in releasing it to the public. He and Dr. Geschke, who had worked on the project, were crestfallen.

“I went into his office, and I said, ‘We can live in the world’s greatest sandbox for the rest of our life, or we can do something about it,’” Dr. Warnock said in a 2018 interview with the Computer History Museum.

They both quit, and in late 1982 they founded Adobe Systems, named for a creek near Dr. Warnock’s home. In 2023 it had a market capitalization of $235 billion, making it one of the largest information-technology companies in the world.

In 2009, President Barack Obama presented the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to both Dr. Warnock and Dr. Geschke.

Dr. Warnock and Dr. Geschke, who ran the company as equals, were rare exceptions among the outsize egos and eccentric zillionaires of Silicon Valley: avuncular and academic, they built an aggressively competitive company while consistently ranking high on lists of the best places to work.

Despite its size, Adobe was often cast as the David versus much larger Goliaths, most often Microsoft — which, unlike Apple, repeatedly rejected Dr. Warnock’s entreaties to collaborate and instead tried to beat Adobe with its own protocols and programs. None of them worked.

Dr. Warnock, who had 20 patents to his name, stepped down as chief executive in 2001 but remained on Adobe’s board of directors.

“Being a C.E.O. of a company that is over $1 billion is not all it is cracked up to be,” he said in an interview with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. “The thing I really enjoy is the invention process. I enjoy figuring out how to do things other people don’t know how to do.”