John Warnock, computer scientist who co-founded Adobe – obituary

With Charles Geschke he built Adobe into the second-biggest PC-software company in the world after Microsoft

John Warnock in 2001 at Adobe HQ in San Jose
John Warnock in 2001 at Adobe HQ in San Jose Credit: Paul Sakuma/AP

John Warnock, who has died aged 82, was the co-founder, with Charles Geschke, of the computer software giant Adobe Systems, the company credited with launching the desktop-publishing revolution.

In the early 1980s the pair were working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (Parc) in Silicon Valley on the problem of how to print consistently attractive documents. Their solution was a programming language, InterPress, that would control communication between a computer and a printer. Frustrated by Xerox’s reluctance to commercialise the technology, they resigned and in 1982 founded Adobe (named after a nearby creek) in Warnock’s garage, where InterPress morphed into PostScript, a “fully featured page description” language.

They intended to build intelligent printers which ran PostScript, but instead struck a deal with Steve Jobs in 1984 to make a software PostScript interpreter which Apple could build into its printer. Apple LaserWriter was launched and desktop publishing was born.

The quality of PostScript documents was such that during the 1980s it became the standard for professional image-setters, and software to display PostScript on computer screens became freely available. By 1987 Adobe had agreements with IBM, Digital, AST Research, Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments for them to use PostScript in their printers.

Warnock with his Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke in 2009 Credit: Patrick Tehan/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Further product developments, and a series of judicious acquisitions, facilitated a move by Adobe towards electronic publishing. In 1991 Warnock launched a project called “Camelot” with a view to developing software that would “effectively capture documents from any application, send electronic versions of these documents anywhere, and view and print these documents on any machines”. Two years later, Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) was born.

At the time Warnock envisaged PDF as a way to distribute books via the CD-ROM. Instead it rode the wave of the internet boom with Acrobat, a program that enabled a user to create a document and then use PDF to format it for electronic distribution. The key to PDF’s success came with the decision in 1994 to separate Acrobat Reader (which can read and print PDFs, but not produce or edit them) from the full version of Acrobat – and to give it away for free.

With products such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign, Adobe remains at the forefront of modern-day publishing technology – from newspapers, magazines, billboards and web pages to streaming video and blockbuster movies.

Warnock, who held some 20 patents and was the recipient of numerous industry awards, stepped down as chief executive in 2001, by which time Adobe had become the second-biggest PC-software company in the world after Microsoft, with sales of $1.2 billion and a worldwide network of dealers and distributors.

Warnock receives the National Medal Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama in 2009 Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of three children, John Edward Warnock was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on October 6 1940 to Clarence Warnock, a lawyer, and Dorothy, née van Dyke. After majoring in mathematics and philosophy at the University of Utah he remained at the university to take a master’s in mathematics and a PhD in electrical engineering. For his thesis he developed an algorithm enabling computers to render 3D objects in two dimensions, which featured on the cover of Scientific American in 1970.

Warnock went on to train in computer science at IBM and became a researcher for the US Department of Defense. He then moved to California to work for a computer graphics firm before joining Xerox’s Parc, which was developing some of the first personal computers.

Warnock collected rare books and enjoyed photography, painting and skiing. A generous philanthropist across many fields, he was founder chairman of the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose and, with his wife Marva, donated $5.7 million-worth of Adobe shares to the University of Utah for a new engineering building which is named after them.

Marva survives him with three children.

John Warnock, born October 6 1940, died August 19 2023