Scanning Around With Gene: From Camelot to Carousel to Acrobat

My very first trip to Adobe headquarters, which was then in Mountain View, California, was in 1992 to get a preview of a brand-new technology the company was calling Carousel. In a small conference room, Adobe executives proposed that there was a massive need for a single document format that could be viewed and printed across any computer platform while still maintaining the look of the original document.

This was heresy in 1992. In addition to a host of technical issues relating to fonts and incompatible operating systems, the very thought of being able to physically get a file from, say, a Macintosh into a DOS computer was thought too difficult. Computer networks were still only for the largest of companies, and most of us in the publishing industry saw Carousel as a pipe dream and much too difficult to pull off.

But there was something very compelling about a “paperless” document that would display properly no matter what sort of computer system it ended up on. At the time, Adobe employees were under strong pressure to use this technology internally, and the working example the company was able to display back then was an internal phone directory. Not only were they saving money by not having to print this directory any more, but it was easy to update, it was searchable, and it had several other advantages over the paper version.

Of course, now we know this technology as Adobe Acrobat, and though it took almost ten years for it to catch on, the original vision was pretty accurate.

There Was no Spam-a-lot in Camelot
The genesis of Carousel (the second official code name for Acrobat) actually took place much earlier than 1992. Back in 1984, when Adobe was teaming with Apple to promote the first PostScript laser printer, Adobe CEO John Warnock wanted an output sample for demonstration purposes that people could relate to and that he could compare to the original. So he hand-programmed in PostScript a version of IRS Schedule E – Supplemental Income from 1979. Here is the actual form he programmed.

But PostScript was a difficult language, and a complicated form such as this was not only hard to create, but it took 2 minutes and 45 seconds to print. Steve Jobs told Warnock that they couldn’t demonstrate anything that took that long to print, so it was put aside for the moment.

However, in 1991 PostScript was gaining steam as a world standard, and Warnock started thinking again about the need for a fast, small file format that would achieve much of what PostScript was doing, but not carry so much overhead. This was before the Internet began to take off, but increasingly companies were setting up internal local networks and the need for a high-quality yet easy-to-distribute document format was clear.

So that year Warnock wrote a small paper that he referred to as The Camelot Paper. In it, he outlined a company project with the goal to “solve a fundamental problem that confronts today’s companies. The problem is concerned with our ability to communicate visual material between different computer applications and systems.” Here is that original paper.

Warnock went on to describe the technology that would accomplish this goal, and suggested that “Our vision for Camelot is to provide a collection of utilities, applications, and system software so that a corporation can effectively capture documents from any application, send electronic versions of these documents anywhere, and view and print these documents on any machine.” That was a tall order.

At the time, an article about Camelot appeared in the New York Times. The reporter, John Markoff, said “If it succeeds, Carousel will alter the way computers are used in offices. Today, these machines are used primarily to create documents in word processors and spreadsheets. In the future, computers will increasingly be used to search for and view information.”

In that same article, Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future is quoted as saying that “computer memories and magnetic and optical disks will increasingly be used to store information and paper will be used only if a hard copy is needed.” He ended the article by suggesting that “Adobe is sitting on something so big and so clever that even they don’t appreciate it.”

As it turns out, very few people appreciated it save for Warnock and his partner Chuck Geschke. The Acrobat project came under fire internally at Adobe for many years as it struggles to make sense and money. In 1993 the product was officially rolled out as Acrobat, to little fanfare and mostly negative reviews.

Several other companies were working on similar ideas, and products such as Common Ground from No-Hands software, Envoy from Word Perfect, and Tru-Doc from Bistream all briefly vied for recognition as the perfect format for electronic documents. But only Adobe hung in long enough and invested enough resources to see the concept through.

In the early days, one problem was that Adobe’s model included charging for the Acrobat Reader ($50 per single-user). It was only after they began giving that component away that Acrobat gained real momentum. That, and the birth of the Internet, which provided the document distribution system necessary to make electronic documents viable.

Now here we are at Acrobat 9 (see my review), and Acrobat Reader is installed on nearly every computer in the world. I wouldn’t say we’re living in Camelot, but it’s nice to know that a strong vision and perseverance paid off. Had Adobe given up, we might all be looking at Microsoft Word as the highest standard for document display, and that’s pretty depressing.

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Posted on: July 11, 2008

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.

2 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: From Camelot to Carousel to Acrobat

  1. Random additional historical note: The “Distiller” was originally some postscript code that PS developers could download to a PostScript RIP. It would sit there, resident until the printer was restarted. When Distiller was present, it would rewrite any PostScript code sent to it — breaking it down into its simplest components and throwing away any extraneous data. Then it would send the new code back to the host computer. It was an ingenious piece of code (I still have “Distiller.ps” here on my machine for old times’ sake).

  2. A question – do you have any insight into why the name evolved from Camelot to Carousel, and finally Acrobat? Very interested in the history
    Thanks

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