Adobe at 40: impact and alternatives

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Published on 1 December 2022 by Andrew Owen


Adobe is 40 years old this month. Founders John Warnock and Charles Geschke both previously worked at Xerox PARC, where desktop publishing (DTP) was first developed. Adobe’s first product was the PostScript page description language. In March 1985 Apple began selling the first laser printer with PostScript support. In the following July, Aldus released its PageMaker DTP software for the Macintosh. Then in 1986, Eddy Shah launched Today, the UK’s first computer photo-typeset and full-color offset printed newspaper. Every other newspaper in the world rapidly adopted the technology. In 2022, the Saguache Crescent is the last remaining newspaper using the old technology, and its Linotype press is over 100 years old.

My first career was in newspapers, and I lived through the digital revolution. I vaguely remember going to Macintosh consumer shows in London in the early 1990s to see the latest products from companies like Aldus, Avid, Quark, MacroMind (later Macromedia). There were demos of the Copland operating system, which Apple eventually killed in 1996. There were licensed Mac clones from companies including Motorola, Power Computing and UMAX (which Steve Jobs killed off by renaming MacOS 7.7 to MacOS 8, thus locking them out of licensing).

I’ve been using Photoshop since version 2.0 (which introduced CMYK color model). I remember layers being a big deal when they were introduced in version 3.0. The main thing I remember from those days is using the green channel of an RGB image to create a grayscale image. Even though newspaper photographs were printed in black and white, everything was photographed on color film. This was mainly because it was possible to bribe high street photo shops to put your film at the head of the queue and get it developed in about five minutes. Then you’d scan the negatives, but back then even the best scanners could introduce quite a lot of noise into the image. However, the green channel usually had the least noise and a reasonable level of contrast. Old habits die hard, and I still use this conversion method to this day.

Then you’d do your page layout in PageMaker, or QuarkXpress 3.1. This was useful training because I was able to spend the summer between my first and second year at university working for my local newspaper doing page layout and copy editing. This probably also has something to do with me becoming a typography nerd. That and Erik Spiekermann’s book Stop Stealing Sheep (now in its fourth edition with a less obscure title).

CD-ROMs were all the rage at the time. If you were in multimedia, you’d likely be using Macromind Director 3.1.3 to create content that could be played on macOS and Windows. The internet was still spelled with an initial capital letter, and was beginning to take off but most users were still on dial-up modems. I’d read about ARPAnet in the 1980s in Hugo Cornwall’s Hacker’s Handbook. I first got to try it (in text only) on a VAX system running VMS at Long Island University in 1994. Over the next decade, Adobe acquire Aldus, Photoshop, Frame Technology and Macromedia and quite a lot of other stuff. And it adapted PostScript into the portable document format (PDF), but that’s another story.

Founded in 1984, Altsys created Fontographer for macOS and Windows, and Virtuoso for NeXTstep and Solaris. Aldus, licensed Virtuoso and published it for macOS and Windows. Altsys was acquired by Macromedia in 1995.

Also founded in 1984, Aldus Corporation’s main product was PageMaker. They had a simple raster art package called SuperPaint (whcih I bought because I couldn’t afford Photoshop). And they also created a program you might have heard of called After Effects. It was acquired by Adobe in 1994. Its founders went on to create Visio whcih was acquired by Micrsosoft. Because Adobe already had Illustrator, the Federal Trade Commission required it to sell FreeHand, which was acquired by Macromedia.

Founded in 1992, Macromedia created Director, Dreamweaver and Flash (and a vector art package called Fireworks). Adobe acquired Macromedia in 2005. Also in the early 1990s, Frame Technology created FrameMaker, a document processor beloved of technical writers. It was originally released on Sun platforms and I remember running the SPARC version on x64 Solaris using Transitive (which licensed the orignial Rosetta to Apple and was later acquired by IBM). Adobe acquired Frame Technologies in 1995.

In 2013 Adobe began transitioning its entire suite of software to a subscription model. The last version of its design suite that you could buy outright was CS6 (version 13) and that was dropped on January 9, 2017. I still have a copy of the Mac version, but it won’t run on anything later than macOS 10.14, and I think it’s time I retired my late 2010 MacBook Air (which can only run macOS 10.13).

At the end of 2018 I bought an iPad Pro with the intent of making it my main machine. This was the first model with a USB-C connector, which made it possible for me to add a dock and a wired keyboard. For creative use, I got the Apple Pencil 2. The original iPad launched in 2010. It was effectively a new platform and, initially, apps were priced at a similar level to apps on the iPhone. This enabled new products like Procreate (from Australia) and Affinity Photo (from Britain) to offer an alternative to Photoshop. Affinity Designer was released in 2014 providing an alternative to Illustrator. Affinity Publisher, an alternative to InDesign, completed the suite, finally getting its iPad release last month.

Founded in 1987, Serif created a range of creative software for Windows over a 20 year period. But with problems maintaining the old code base, it decided to start over and create the Affinity suite of apps for iPad, macOS and Windows. Unlike Adobe it will sell you the apps individually, or together for a one-off payment per major version (this year it released version 2 of the suite). It offers individual, multi-user and business licenses. Launch discounts available at time of writing make the entire suite on iPad cheaper than a month’s subscription for Adobe’s equivalent apps. For my needs, Affinity is a viable alternative to Creative Suite. There’s a 30-day trial, so you can see if it works for you. Given that Adobe has swallowed up so much of the industry, it’s good to see some healthy competition.

There are also free open source alternatives: Gimp for raster art, InkScape for vector art and Scribus for DTP. I can work quite effectively in InkScape and Scribus. But I’ve always found Gimp a pain to use. There have been various spin-offs over the years to try to make it more comfortable for people coming from Photoshop. But none of them tend to last very long. In the original version of this post I mentioned Seashore, a macOS native raster art app with a much simpler interface than Gimp. But after a couple of months of using it, I’m not really happy with it. And then I remembered Krita. It’s also free, open source and available on Linux, macOS and Windows. And I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an alternative to Gimp.