One-stop shop for the professionals

Adobe's industry-standard design packages have made it the second largest software company in the world.
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Look on the computer of any design or publishing professional, and there is bound to be at least one piece of Adobe software. Adobe - creator of the Pagemaker desktop publishing package and the market-leading imaging software Photoshop - is synonymous with the design and print industries.

Adobe is the world's second-largest desktop software company, after Microsoft, and its annual revenues are just short of $1bn (pounds 624m).

When Adobe was founded in 1982 by Chuck Geschke and John Warnock, the idea of desktop publishing (DTP) was dismissed by all but the most forward- thinking designers. DTP is now a mainstream computer application for design professionals, and for office workers and home computer users too.

More powerful PCs, low-cost colour inkjet printers and cheap digital cameras have made digital photography a mass market application, but the Internet has had the greatest impact.

Digital cameras come into their own on the Net, whether to capture images for a website, or to send a snapshot to a relative. "When we acquired Photoshop, we would have been surprised if we had shipped a few hundred copies a quarter," Geschke recalls. "We did not appreciate how quickly digital photography and high-quality, low-cost inkjet printers would develop.

"We started our company focused around building the tools and technology for publishing, originally print publishing," he explains. "We continue to stay in the publishing business, but the entire process of going from concept to print has migrated to electronic.

"We have had the good fortune to build a lot of the products that are part of that."

Since the Eighties, Adobe has diversified, most notably by acquiring Photoshop. The company has gone on to lead the market for photographic imaging software - 76 per cent of Web designers use Photoshop, and 93 per cent of all photos on the Web have been scanned, retouched, manipulated or compressed using the application. Adobe also produces software for web page design, typography, corporate documentation and video editing. Pagemaker, its DTP application, has done less well recently. Adobe bought Aldus, the company which developed Pagemaker, in 1994. By then, Pagemaker was already losing ground to QuarkXpress. Today, Quark is the professional's DTP program of choice.

Geschke acknowledges the work Adobe has to do to win back market share from Quark. Last week, at the Seybold publishing conference in Boston, Adobe unveiled its response: InDesign. Adobe's philosophy is to create software that lets designers design, rather than putting artificial constraints on their creativity. Most design packages can manipulate only elements that are on the pasteboard, so designers have to move them, work on them, and move them back. Adobe believes practical improvements like this, and the facility to have two different-sized views of a page open at once will appeal to the professionals who left Pagemaker for QuarkXpress.

Adobe needs InDesign to be successful - 1998 was a difficult year financially, especially because of the economic downturn in Asia. "It was not our best- performing year," Geschke admits. "We would have had close to 15 per cent growth if Japan had performed even as well as in 1997. Japan has historically been in excess of 20 per cent of our revenue."

InDesign is the first major new product Adobe has created in-house for some time. Much of the company's recent expansion came through acquisitions. The most recent purchase was GoLive!, publishers of the Cyberstudio Web design package. "You have to have a balanced portfolio of both acquisition and internal growth," says Geschke.

The GoLive! deal illustrates the importance Adobe is placing on the Internet. It plans to be a one-stop shop for Web page authors. The Internet already accounts for a significant proportion of Adobe's revenues. "I cannot calculate how much of our Photoshop revenue comes from the Web," Geschke says. "What I do know is that Adobe has made more profit off tools sold for creating content on the Web than any other software publisher."

Geschke believes that Web pages lag behind their printed counterparts, especially in quality. Publishers realise the advantages in distributing their material online: it is quicker and cheaper than print. But, as anyone who has tried to print out a Web page knows, the process is awkward and the result ugly.

Adobe is creating new standards for Web pages. The company developed PGML, (Precision Graphics Markup Language) or SVG, (Scaleable Vector Graphic), which is being adopted as an Internet standard. PGML, Geschke believes, will be to the Web what Postscript was to desktop publishing.

PGML uses vector graphics - mathematical descriptions of images - to create compact files that automatically adjust their resolution for display or printing out. A PGML file should look as good on paper as on a computer screen.

For Geschke, PGML is the key to narrowing the gap between the reality of the Internet, and popular expectations. "In the mass market, the quality of what people look at on the Web will be judged in comparison with television. That is what people expect. It looks like a television set, so it should have the quality and imagery of a television set," he says. "What we're doing is bringing the Web up to the level of functionality and quality people expect."