Geschke on practical standards, the necessities and risks

Want to predict how Adobe will act? Look at its past. Groups develop different cultures, and knowing how a group “works” gives big clues on its future.

I’ve been reading and re-reading this interview with Charles Geschke since it appeared last week. There’s a lot that’s pertinent to today’s issues.

Here they discuss how PostScript… well, read it yourself first, and I’ll add some of my own reactions at the bottom….

Knowledge@Wharton: From the beginning, you documented the specification for the PostScript language.

Geschke: Yes. We published the spec about three or four months before the first LaserWriter shipped.

Knowledge@Wharton: These days this is fairly common practice to help establish a standard platform, but it was much less common back then. Was this merely a practical necessity because people needed to write software to drive PostScript printers or was this a strategic move to establish PostScript as a standard?

Geschke: It wasn’t strategic in the sense that we understood this would become a standard way of doing business. It was the only way we could figure out to get the hardware manufacturers and the software developers and the platform vendors to collaborate. You couldn’t do independent deals with each of them because there would always be somebody left out.

If you really wanted to make it a standard — and our goal from the beginning was to have it be a universal standard — you have to publish. You just have no choice. You’re taking the risk that someone will do a better job of implementing it. We had the self confidence that we would always have the best implementation, and that has turned out to be true.

Knowledge@Wharton: A lot of PostScript clones did come along eventually.

Geschke: At one time there were over 75 of them.

Knowledge@Wharton: Did it ever worry you that they would start to chip away at your market share?

Geschke: No. But it turned out that Microsoft acquired one of them.

Knowledge@Wharton: From Bauer Enterprises.

Geschke: Right. TrueImage, they called it. Microsoft did a deal to license TrueImage [to Apple] and Apple would license TrueType to Microsoft. That was pretty scary for us.

Knowledge@Wharton: When did you first hear about the Microsoft-Apple partnership for TrueImage and TrueType?

Geschke: A few days before it was announced….

(More on the TrueImage/TrueType story: [1], [2].)

The “PostScript Red Book” was the language specification, and the “Blue Book” was a language tutorial and cookbook. Adobe decided how PostScript evolved, true — it was corporate governance, not consortium governance (and you could argue that a company listens to its customers better than a consortium does) — but PostScript was free, open, documented, and internally competitive back in the 1980s.

PDF did the same thing in the early 90s — Adobe was open with “how PDFs act”, even though it didn’t give away its recipe for “how to make it act that way”. In the late 90s Macromedia did the same thing with SWF, saying “here’s how a SWF file should act”.

Like HTML, the spec told you how a file should behave, and didn’t need to include sourcecode to a particular application.

If you really wanted to make it a standard — and our goal from the beginning was to have it be a universal standard — you have to publish. You just have no choice. You’re taking the risk that someone will do a better job of implementing it. We had the self confidence that we would always have the best implementation, and that has turned out to be true.

The SWF file format was first published in 1998, and has been updated with every release. In the early days it also included runtime sourcecode and SDKs, and this was the basis for Oliver Debon’s wonderful early work, which was later recycled into SWFDec, Gnash, and a number of other clones (I’d cite links, but The Web suffers linkrot.) HTML, JavaScript, CSS, none of those file formats include rendering engine sourcecode. PostScript and PDF predated these, and Flash followed the same approach later. All focused on published file formats, with the big difference between governance by a consortium, or governance by a company.

That’s history. The important thing for today? This mindset permeates Adobe. This is the corporate memory. This is what drove the evolution of the group, its beliefs, its understandings.

To achieve something new and useful, you have to have allies. You have to be clear in what you’re trying to do, and commit to it with a public specification, a promise of how functionality “should” behave. There’s the risk another group will undercut you, but it’s a risk which must be accepted if you hope to achieve progress.

From what I’ve seen since the Macromedia acquisition, this awareness on open formats to encourage consensus upon innovative technology runs throughout the company even today. And, from what Adobe’s founder tells above, it was there from the start, before The Web, even before The Internet publicly opened up.

Read the interview again. To bring about a new technology ecology, Adobe continually commits to a public specification, drawing in both partners and competitors, and trusts to innovate quickly within that new, growing area.

If you want to understand Adobe, it’s essential to understand this cultural memory of opening up, becoming vulnerable, yet innovating quickly.