Adobe co-founder and PDF king dies at 82

John Warnock, who helped to bring the PDF file onto the desktops of millions of computer and mobile phone users worldwide, has passed away.

His death, which came after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, was announced on Saturday by representatives of the company he helped to create.

“It is with profound sadness that I share that our beloved co-founder Dr John Warnock passed away at the age of 82,” said his friend and colleague Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen. “John's brilliance and technology innovations changed the world. It is a sad day for the Adobe community, and the industry for which he has been an inspiration for decades.”

It’s in the nature of a eulogy to praise the departed, but in this case Narayen’s words are no idle boast. Used by some 100 million people around the globe, it is fair to say that Adobe Acrobat has become ubiquitous.

Warnock, who grew up in Holladay, Utah, co-founded the Adobe company in 1982 with Charles Geschke after they met working together at Xerox. Their first product was Adobe PostScript, which helped to kickstart the desktop publishing revolution.

Though he retired as CEO in 2000, Warnock continued to serve as chairman of the board, a position he shared with Geschke until 2017.

John Warnock in 1969
John Warnock in 1969 (Credit: Adobe)

Warnock’s glittering career hardly went unrecognized, and many accolades followed. In recognition of his company’s achievements, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama in 2008, picking up the Marconi Prize for contributions to information science and communications with Geschke two years later.

Perhaps what makes Adobe Acrobat so popular is that, in an era when firms like Microsoft are ready to charge ever higher fees for core products such as Office, it continues to offer its basic package as a free download — meaning you and I can continue to benefit from PDF technology so long as we have internet access.

This is about Warnock’s legacy, but if this humble writer can give a small personal testimony to that legacy, it is this: as an aficionado of RPGs and other obscure 20th-century print texts that long ago ceased to be available on physical bookshelves, I owe him my gratitude: his free-at-point-of-use service has enabled me to rediscover works of fiction I thought long lost, often at little or no cost to myself.

Narayen added that the death would leave “a huge void in our lives” and sent his commiserations to Warnock’s wife, Marva, and three children. A graphic designer, she inspired her husband to find a way to automate many of the daily tasks she carried out in the course of her work. The rest, as they say, is history.

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