Chuck says his shirt is lilac. I can see that his shirt is lilac, too. Last month, when he walked into the department store, spotted it, selected it, paid for it and put it in his bag, it was lilac. The likelihood of his shirt changing colour on the trip from the shop to his home was minimal.
But Charles Geschke knows that in the world of e-commerce lilac isn't always lilac. What appears on an online catalogue isn't necessarily what lands on your neighbour's doorstep 28 days later. Thanks to the vagaries of software packages, the difficulties in accurately calibrating both monitor and printer, as well as a multitude of registration palettes from which to choose, colours are not always what they seem.
'If you ordered a lilac shirt over the Web and you got something back that was pink, you wouldn't be happy. Today, with some products and Websites, there's no way to guarantee that won't happen,' says Geschke. 'We are working on delivering full-colour fidelity on the Web, where we can guarantee that the colour approximation on the viewer's display is as good as it is on the originators.
'Think forward to a point when e-commerce sites have catalogues showcasing thousands of products. It doesn't make sense for each page to be hand-crafted by a user. You would rather have constant production of pages where images, pricing and product availability are updated seamlessly - and, of course, the colour is accurate.'
Adobe has a tool in the early stages of development that is capable of taking raw information from a database and representing it in a graphic format, but Geschke is uncertain whether this product will ship. Today, he has larger fish to fry.
Geschke has just completed a whistlestop UK visit outlining Adobe's vision for the coming year and introducing some of the technologies that he hopes will drive the internet - and, in particular, its graphic potential - into the millennium. Many applications present unnecessary obstacles to real creativity, he believes, and the model he is here to champion is one where software removes obstacles, allowing users to pursue ideas and ideals unhindered.
'Interfaces will become ever more intuitive and will standardise across products, reducing the learning curve and optimising workflow from desktop, to approval, to print, to the Web.'
Improving the quality of material distributed and displayed on the Web will be of benefit to users. Although a noble cause, the real benefit will be to Adobe's bottom line - something that Geschke doesn't deny.
'Raising expectations is in our long-term business interests. The easiest way to do that is to take technology that is already proven and make it available to a broader audience. Keeping technology proprietary can be a good way to show it off but it doesn't enhance the platform because not everyone can participate,' he says. 'For example, when PGML (precision graphics mark-up language) is adopted by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) the documentation of how to use it will be available to everyone - both our competitors and partners. A lack of standards can paralyse an industry.
Imagine if every television channel used a different format, where would television be today? It's bad enough that I can't bring my US-produced videotapes over here and play them in one of these European VCRs.'
Geschke sees Adobe's participation and leadership in various standards committees as pivotal in helping drive the industry forward. His stated mission - to create value in the minds of the trendsetters within the software space - has been helped by an aggressive campaign to persuade US government organisations to adopt the standards promoted by Adobe.
'In the US, there is a requirement to reduce the amount of paperwork necessary to operate our government. One of the easiest ways to do that is to automate paper by using the PDF (portable document format). We have been very successful, with more than 100 branches of the US government now standardised on that format.
'Similarly, with PGML, rather than just talk the technology game, we are working with high-impact, high-profile Websites to get them to publish more material in that format, so that they create a different experience for the user.
'By doing this it accelerates the process of people realising the value of the format and agreeing to standardise. That's the way you build standards.
You create value in the mind of the user of the technology. While it's important that we work with the standards bodies and within their framework, ultimately the market determines standards.'
With Adobe holding such a massive market share in both the business and home graphics markets, it is important for the vendor to be seen to be acting in the interests of the consumer - something of which Geschke is aware.
'There are some trends in the computer software industry that, if not carefully monitored, could cause a lack of competitiveness, and therefore a lack of value for the user. What Adobe has done is focus on a set of customers and set of technologies that we know very well,' he says.
Focusing more closely on customer needs is something Geschke believes will reap huge rewards. But when vendors start talking in these terms, many dealers become suspicious. With direct fulfilment tools such as the internet becoming ever more pervasive, the threat to traditional dealers and the need for them to adapt is obvious.
'One of the differences the Web is going to provide for Adobe's customer base is that it gives us an opportunity to market directly to our customers - not only to learn more about what they are buying from Adobe, but what they would find valuable.
How product delivery and fulfilment occurs and what kind of personalised support and value-added capabilities customers are going to want it is too early to predict, says Geschke. To a certain extent that always requires some type of interpersonal relationship, he believes.
'In principle, one could imagine the Web being a complete delivery mechanism for all technology in the software space, but I think that's a simple-minded view of what the customer requirements are going to be.
'I look at myself as an individual purchaser of technology and it is only the price/availability that matters to me in certain cases. But at other times I need to interact with someone, perhaps get some consulting advice or some after-sales support. I don't expect to do that purely on the Web. I prefer to have someone I can directly communicate with on a personal basis. We need to be prepared to go through whatever channels of distribution our customers want and our partners are most comfortable with.'
A case in point occurred several years ago. 'We found that both our customers and our distribution partners couldn't make sense of staying in the typeface distribution business - too many SKUs (stock keeping units). So we went electronic in delivering that. It's also the case that the cost of retail distribution for non-professional products - such as PhotoDeluxe - makes the cost of getting them to customers in that way prohibitive. That's why we have delivered most of our PhotoDeluxe product by OEM bundling.'
Geschke acknowledges the real value of delivering incremental, relatively modest, short-download software over the Web as a big plus, but he doubts whether Adobe's core products could in the short-to-medium term be delivered in such a way.
'If you look at the amount of value we put into our Photoshop package, it barely fits on a CD. It is impractical in today's bandwidth environment to offer that purely electronically. Also, don't forget, there are unique characteristics of customers on both the Macintosh and PC platforms.
'We have very good data - particularly in the US - that Macintosh customers are comfortable buying through the mail-order channel, while PC buyers typically want to see the product in the store. They may not buy it there; they may go back and call up the reseller that services their organisation and have it delivered.'
Although Adobe has its roots in the Macintosh market, Geschke is keen to point out that two-thirds of Adobe's business now comes from the PC market. 'The perception we get from a lot of the press is that five, six, seven years ago you were a Macintosh company and what is surprising is how much of your business today is on the PC. My customers tell me what platforms they want to use and we try to deliver systems on the platform that they pick.'
Intel's ability to manufacture faster and faster processors has also been a contributory factor to Adobe's product development. With the chip giant demanding much more sophisticated performance-demanding applications to showcase the abilities of its platforms, Geschke sees Adobe reaping the benefits. 'That's why, every time Intel brings out a new platform, the first product it runs is Photoshop. That's why it is a supporter of PGML - because it will bring more sophisticated, high-performance, client-side computing to customers.'
One of Adobe's most lucrative and high-profile potential customers in Europe is the European Community. And with the opening of an Adobe office in Brussels, the vendor is overtly looking to tap the EU market. Adobe's approach, states Geschke, is to go directly to the customer and explain the theory - not provide and integrate the product.
'We typically go in and try to establish the principal economic premise of the technology. But as the technology gets deployed in the departments, we do not go into those accounts. There are Vars and SIs that do this for us. Typically, we do the proof-of-concept sale and then let third parties do the rest.'
An important opportunity for SIs will come with the release of K2 - Adobe's challenge to Quark in page make-up. 'The K2 development is a whole new platform. A lot of K2's features, when it comes to market, will have been built as component additions to the kernel layout engine that is the nexus of the product. So, we are even, in some senses, co-developers of the product,' says Geschke.
'We've thought about it carefully. For example, someone who wants to go into catalogue publishing or producing yellow pages, we've designed the software so that it's easy for them to add their own niche markets and application expertise to it. That generates a micro-industry. It brings value to the user because you get specific expertise that Adobe may not have internally, and it's more quickly brought to market. It makes for an inherent partnership between those value-added developers, SIs and ourselves.'
The greatest danger to Adobe's market dominance could be its current strength. As the saying goes, once you're at the top, the only way is down. 'Competing with Quark is not a slam dunk - it holds such a commanding share of the market in that particular sector and we have to bring something of real value to the customer, otherwise they will not go through the cost and the overhead of changing over,' says Geschke.
'But we will compete. The problem with Quark's co-base is that it is 10 years old. One of the typical complaints of a Quark customer is that you buy Quark version X, get your plug-ins and everything is working fine.
But when you go to version X+1, you have to go and re-callibrate and in many cases repurchase the extensions because it hasn't built a framework that is naturally upwardly compatible. That's not our strategy. In fact, there are a lot of plug-ins that you can buy for Photoshop that also work on Illustrator. That's partly because of our technical design, but also because our marketing strategy has not been to place barriers in the way of our customers.'
High-profile deals with Intel and Kodak have also helped spread the gospel.
'When Kodak went out and measured the recognition of brand name in the digital photography market it found something rather sobering - our brand name was better known than its brand. It's an indication that in vertical market segments we are well known,' says Geschke.
As technologies converge, the Adobe name will undoubtedly infiltrate into other market segments. But the most important thing Geschke believes will have an impact on the industry will be the availability of higher bandwidth. 'What you see in the US right now is some of the telephone and cable companies getting together and that will eventually improve things. I can only get a 56kbit connection into my house. We have a long way to go. I can get satellite TV, I can get digital cable. But I can't get digital transmission to the internet. Only then will the internet realise its potential. At Adobe, we're ready and waiting,' he says.
'We are making our base technologies, such as Acrobat, interface well with the standard scripting techniques that are used for things such as credit-card verification, database inventory and cataloguing of orders.
For big-name retailers to feel that they are presenting themselves in the best possible light to potential purchasers, they want to be able to reproduce stunning representations of their products. Adobe will become very active in the success of e-commerce - whether it's marketing the things being sold, or providing the electronic work flow to place an order or issue a receipt.'
And who knows, maybe next time someone orders a lilac shirt over the internet it really will be lilac when it arrives.
A year in the life of Adobe
Adobe proposes to improve quality of Web graphics. W3C to evaluate PGML standard championed by Adobe.
Photoshop 5 and Premiere 5 ships.
ImageReady 1 Web design tool ships.
Adobe states it has not received a bonafide offer from Quark regarding a possible takeover. Adobe announces Illustrator 8.
Adobe ships Web graphics software application, ImageStyler 1. Adobe and Quantel agree to drop patent infringement dispute.
Adobe reports fourth quarter 1998 profit in excess of $50 million. For the fiscal year, it records a profit of $105.1 million, down from $187.8 million in 1997. Adobe says profit was adversely affected by poor economic conditions in Japan.
Adobe acquires GoLive Systems.
Adobe's dad is dreaming of grandchildren
What drew you and John Warnock together?
He had a beard, like me. Seriously, I thought that John could bring a fresh perspective to the lab that I was starting at Xerox. He was a seasoned veteran and understood the technology behind high-quality responsive graphics better than anyone who was then at Xerox.
What influenced you to take the path you have?
My father. He was a printer. He wasn't a mentor to what I do, but certainly to how I live. He only had an eighth grade education but he knew that education was everything. He was a brutally honest man.
And on a professional basis?
My thesis adviser at Carnegie Mellon University, Bill Wulf, and Alan Perlis, chairman of the department when I was accepted there. Perlis is one of the fathers of computer science and his enthusiasm for technology became infectious. It made you not want to get old and staid about your views of technology.
And the biggest turning point in your life?
I was teaching mathematics but I was frustrated by academic life. I had just learned to program a computer. Nan, my wife, said, 'If working with computers is what you enjoy that's what you should pursue.' I said: 'But we're married, we have two kids.' She said: 'We'll find a way.'
Do you tend to take your love of technology home with you?
I wouldn't say that either my wife or I are technology focused, but I do love gadgets.
And the one thing you would like to do?
I would like to be a grandfather. That is actually the thing that I am looking forward to the most.
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