Charles Geschke, seated, shares a joke with John Warnock, his co-founder, in 1998
Steve Jobs thought they were mad. The Apple co-founder was offering to buy an obscure Silicon Valley start-up that made printer software and its founders, Charles Geschke and John Warnock, flatly turned him down. “OK,” Jobs said. “Then sell me the software.”
The men refused, telling the mogul that they would stick to their business plan. “Well, I think you guys are nuts,” Geschke recalled Jobs replying. “When you change your mind, call me.”
Realizing that inexperience was making them inflexible, Geschke telephoned Jobs and they did a deal. In return for his software, Apple would buy 19.9 percent of the fledgling enterprise, Adobe, and pay an advance on future royalties of about $1.5 million (the equivalent of about £3 million today).
It proved a shrewd move for both parties. Apple launched the Macintosh a year or so later, in 1984, transforming graphic design and printing technology. Peripherals were soon central to personal computing and by the end of the millennium, Adobe was a billion-dollar company, responsible for products including Photoshop image editor, Acrobat file reader, and the Portable Document Format (PDF).
Printing documents in the early days of personal computers were tortuous and tedious. Slow, screeching dot-matrix printers delivered low-resolution text in plain fonts. Line spacing and column widths were a voyage into the unknown while any picture more complex than a greyscale pie chart was out of the question.
By the mid-Eighties superior laser and inkjet printers, while expensive, were moving into the mainstream. Geschke and colleagues developed a programming language that enabled computers and printers to talk to each other with unparalleled eloquence. The product, PostScript, was used in the Apple LaserWriter printer when it was released in 1985 and became an industry standard.
Coupled with the graphical user interface and mouse of the Macintosh and the latest WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) screen-to-page word-processing software, desktop publishing was born and the phototypesetting industry was quickly rendered obsolete.
Photoshop, created in 1988 by John and Thomas Knoll and released by Adobe in 1990, helped to usher in a boom in digital graphic design and made retouching — modifying parts of an image, such as removing skin blemishes — more common and affordable.
Admittedly, the software could be buggy and was in some respects ahead of its time. Though Geschke had read only one business book when he started the company, he did take a piece of advice to heart: if you can identify a need and be the first to provide a solution, then you will dominate the market.
“When we introduced Photoshop there were no digital cameras, a scanner was about the size of a refrigerator and cost $40,000 to $50,000, there were no inkjet printers that could produce high-quality prints in your home or in your office,” he said in a 2011 lecture at Carnegie Mellon University. “Yet instinctively we knew that if printing went digital, then photography, and eventually video, would have to. So we went in there early, got 100 percent market share.”
Geschke and Warnock also realized that “digital paper” was soon to be in demand. Acrobat — an application to create, read, edit and print PDF documents — was introduced in 1993, several years before widespread adoption of the internet and email made it easy to share files.
Geschke demonstrates a drawing printed using Adobe’s software, in 1987
Yet Geschke’s wealth led to a traumatic incident. One morning in 1992, as he opened the boot of his Mercedes to take out his briefcase after parking at Adobe’s office in Silicon Valley, Geschke was kidnapped at gunpoint by two men. He was blindfolded, taken to a motel and then a safe house, and warned that if he did not cooperate a bomb would be detonated at his house, his family would die, and “they’d cut me up in pieces and feed me to the sharks”.
The kidnappers called his wife, Nan, and demanded a ransom of $650,000. They warned that she was being watched and cautioned her not to contact the authorities. However, the family informed the FBI who coached his daughter, Kathy, in negotiations with the men. When the abductors called they played a message of Geschke reading the day’s newspaper headlines to prove that he was alive. They ordered Kathy to deliver the money to a remote beach in northern California at 11.30 pm; their fanciful plan was to escape by swimming across Monterey Bay. Fitted with a bulletproof vest and a wire, she drove to the drop-off point with an FBI agent hiding in the back of the car.
Moments before agents swarmed, one of the kidnappers grabbed the bag and ran off into the night, evading capture for several hours. He was finally found by a Swat team, though the money was missing. He soon gave up the location where Geschke was being held, handcuffed inside a wardrobe with his legs chained and a gag in his mouth. FBI agents burst in, arrested the other captor, and freed Geschke, five days after he was taken. The two kidnappers received life sentences.
When Geschke’s monogrammed briefcase was returned to him, he saw that the words “is dead” had been scratched beneath his initials.
Charles Matthew Geschke, known as Chuck, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939. His father, Matthew, made copper plates for printing; his mother, Sophia, was a paralegal. He attended a Jesuit high school and Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he took a degree in classics. He then studied for a master’s degree in mathematics and became a teacher at John Carroll University, another Jesuit establishment in Ohio, completing a Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1972.
Geschke, who had considered becoming a priest, met Nancy McDonough at a religious conference while they were students. They were married in 1964. Nancy, who is a volunteer and philanthropist, survives him with their children, Kathy, an interior designer, Peter, a schoolteacher, and John, chief of staff at Zendesk, a customer service software company.
Geschke’s interest in computing emerged after he was forced to dismiss a failing student at John Carroll University. The man returned to his office a year later but far from being upset came to thank his tutor: he had found a lucrative job selling computers and offered to teach Geschke coding. Geschke’s first full program printed addresses on envelopes for letters announcing the birth of his second child.
He took a job at the Xerox research center in Palo Alto, California. Though the work was cutting-edge, he found the boardroom culture at the printing and copying giant was frustratingly traditional. “They were copier guys,” he said. Tasked with arranging a presentation on the “office of the future” to dozens of Xerox executives, he observed that the managers sat with their arms tightly folded and concern etched on their faces. Yet he noted that their wives and girlfriends, many of whom had worked in clerical roles, were thrilled by the promise of the technology.
He started a graphics and printing research laboratory on the Xerox campus and brought in John Warnock, later recalling: “He had a beard, I had a beard. Still married to the same woman he married originally, so was I. He had three kids, two boys and a girl, I had three kids, two boys, and a girl. And we both refereed soccer, which closed the deal. So I hired him.”
They began work on a forerunner to PostScript but were aghast when their bosses said that it would take seven years to reach the market. The pair pitched the concept of an in-house publishing solution for large companies to a venture capitalist in San Francisco who gave them $2.5 million in funding. Geschke and Warnock left Xerox and formed Adobe in 1982; the name refers to a creek close to their houses.
The relationship between Apple and Adobe was not always harmonious, notably in 2010 when Jobs declared that Adobe’s Flash multimedia player would not be allowed on Apple’s mobile devices.
Geschke was a chief operating officer and president of Adobe, retiring in 2000. He was also chairman of the University of San Francisco. He remained on the Adobe board until April 2020. By then the company had grown into a business with more than 23,000 employees, annual revenue of nearly $13 billion, and, at his death, a market value about 50 times higher than that of Xerox.
“Like anyone in Silicon Valley, my real nightmare, the thing that keeps me up, is two guys in a garage that I’ve never heard of because they could do something that could completely disrupt our business,” Geschke said in 2011. “You see that happening on a regular basis. Who knew that those two graduate students at Stanford would come up with the idea of Google? Or that guy at Harvard, who was sort of, according to the movie, a little out of the social mainstream, would come up with Facebook?”
Charles Geschke, the co-founder of Adobe, was born on September 11, 1939. He died after a long illness on April 16, 2021, aged 81