Evolution of the Digital Document: Celebrating Adobe Acrobat’s 25th Anniversary

Like any milestone worth celebrating, the Adobe Acrobat 25th Anniversary has an amazing origin story.

In the summer of 1990, Adobe co-founder Dr. John Warnock wrote a six-page white paper called “The Camelot Project.” In this paper he outlined a pervasive business problem: the ability (or rather, inability) to reliably exchange high fidelity documents between different computer applications and systems.

“These documents should be viewable on any display and should be printable on any modern printers,” he wrote. “If this problem can be solved then the fundamental way people work will change.”

Thanks to John’s vision and years of hard work by a brilliant product team, the problem was solved – and the way people work has fundamentally changed. Formally launched on June 15, 1993, Adobe Acrobat and the Portable Document Format (PDF) revolutionized the way people view and share documents.

Acrobat has long since become the lingua franca for exchanging digital documents. In the past year alone, some 200 billion PDFs were opened in Adobe products. Three quarters of the Fortune 500 and more than 100 million people use Acrobat every day. PDF and Adobe Acrobat have achieved ubiquity.

And while ubiquity is the holy grail for any technology company, that’s not entirely why we commemorate the 25th anniversary of PDF. It’s about celebrating the creativity, innovation and incredible amount of hard work that has gone in to getting us where we are today. So, in the spirit of celebration, I’d like to recap a few highlights of the origin and evolution of Adobe Acrobat.

Camelot and Beyond

John Warnock actually came up with the idea for PDF several years before he wrote the now-famous “Camelot” paper.

In 1985, he created a new PostScript graphics program (which would later become Acrobat Distiller) and used it to re-code an old federal tax return form. When Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple LaserWriter that year, one of the documents he printed out on stage was John’s 1040 tax form. With Apple on board, Adobe helped launch the desktop publishing revolution.

By 1990, the Camelot Project was officially underway, with this white paper serving as a roadmap for the team of engineers working on a UI demo and proof-of-concept for the product. And while the name Camelot invoked fantastic images of ancient castles and the legendary King Arthur himself, the Adobe team was laser-focused on the future.

They delivered multiple page sizes in the same document, intelligent zooming and cross-platform UI concepts. John saw the first prototype in a small conference room in Mountain View, Calif.

When it came time to pick an official name for the product, the team considered several options – including Carousel, which was already a registered trademark of Eastman Kodak. By the first public product demo in 1992, however, we had landed on Acrobat – a word conjuring up feats of great skill and strength. In terms of circus performer references, I guess the brand team thought it was catchier than Adobe Funambulist.

Adobe Acrobat 1.0 debuted at the Equitable Center in New York on June 15, 1993, broadcast live over satellite links around the world. The first product suite included Acrobat Exchange for creating and viewing Adobe PDF documents, Adobe Reader for viewing Adobe PDF documents, and Adobe Distiller for converting PostScript files to Adobe PDF.

“If Adobe Systems Inc. gets its way, corporate managers around the U.S. may soon be saying ‘PDF it to me’ instead of ‘Fed-Ex it,’” according to a Wall Street Journal story covering the launch. The article also contained a quote from Merrill Lynch analyst M.H. Reach: “[Acrobat] has the potential to be Adobe’s first mass market product, eventually residing on millions of personal computers.’” We hope that M.H. Reach is still holding those Adobe shares!

Evolution of the Document

Over the past 25 years, we’ve delivered continuous innovation to the PDF file format. And now, Adobe Sensei, our artificial intelligence and machine learning platform, has helped us deliver a whole new wave of innovation, including automating the use of the right fonts and the creation of form fields, as well as cleaning up signatures. Adobe Scan, our document scanning app that’s been downloaded more than 10 million times, allows you to use your smartphone to capture images and quickly convert them to PDFs.

And as you read this, our engineers are hard at work on a new generation of breakthrough innovations that will keep PDF at the forefront of digital document technology in an increasingly mobile world.

In 2010, John Warnock delivered a lecture to the American Philosophical Society on “Three Ideas that Changed Printing and Publishing.” While focusing on the “technological innovations and the historical environment that made modern publishing possible,” he concludes on a forward-looking note:

“Our traditional definition of a document, a sequential collection of words, images and graphics printed on paper, is changing daily. Documents in the electronic world can contain all kind of media, can be interactive and can dynamically link to all manner of other material,” he wrote. “How we cope with this changing base of information and how we save it for future generations is yet to be discovered.”

Like the Acrobat team in the early 1990s, we may not be able to predict what a document will look like 25 years from now. But building on our incredible legacy, we will continue to reinvent PDF – and reimagine the traditional definition of a document.

So thank you to everyone at Adobe who has contributed to the amazing success of Acrobat – and once again, happy 25th anniversary!