Bruce Chizen was holding his company's future in the palm of his hand. It was a Nokia cellphone with a 3-inch-by-2-inch color display, running a series of music videos and other snippets of digital entertainment material.
Chizen, 49, is chief executive of Adobe Systems Inc., the innovative software company known until now chiefly for two products. One is the PDF, or "portable document format." Adobe invented the format and dominates the market for PDF tools with its Acrobat software program and ubiquitous free PDF reader, which allows millions of computer users worldwide to view documents on their screens, no matter the type of computer, in a form that exactly replicates the original.
The other is Adobe Photoshop, a digital image-editing program so widely used by photographers that its name is in danger of becoming Xeroxified. ("Don't worry about the bags under her eyes -- we'll Photoshop them out.")
But the cellphone Chizen was waving at me in his San Jose office hinted at a new course for the company.
A few weeks ago, Adobe announced its acquisition of Macromedia Inc. for $3.4 billion in stock. The deal aimed to bring together Adobe's strength in digital document creation with Macromedia's in online content development through its Flash and Shockwave programs. While the deal would improve Adobe's position among creative professionals whose palette is the Web, a more important target is the huge market represented by the tiny screen in Chizen's hand, the third-generation mobile phones that will be the next big platform for pushing content at consumers.
The Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo, Chizen explains, is already equipping phones like these with Flash players and PDF readers. "They want to take advantage of all the content out there," he told me in the native Brooklyn accent he still sports as a badge, even after spending years on the West Coast as an executive at Mattel, Microsoft and Adobe. "They want subway maps" on the display. "They want ads to be viewed."
The acquisition also is aimed at liberating digital computing from the death grip of Microsoft Corp. and its Windows operating system. For years, developers have found it almost impossible to write programs to run equally well on Windows machines, Apple computers, PDAs and cellphones without tediously rewriting the program and tweaking content for each individual operating system.
The first "middleware" that rendered the underlying operating system irrelevant to the user was the Web browser, which may be why Microsoft went to great lengths to exterminate the browser's originator, Netscape. The Java programming language developed by Sun Microsystems aimed for the same "write once, run anywhere" ideal, but fell short.
Acrobat and Flash may have achieved what Java could not. Although Adobe's free reader and Macromedia's free player must be tweaked for any given operating system, the material they display needs to be programmed only once. An Acrobat document or Flash animation should look essentially the same whether it's read on a 17-inch computer monitor or a cellphone screen.
That Adobe is looking over the horizon at the potential of cellphones and other mobile devices may have something to do with its founding by two alumni of Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Center, Chuck Geschke and John Warnock.
Geschke was a top engineer and manager at PARC. Warnock was a computer graphics pioneer, famous for solving a technical conundrum known as the "hidden line problem" so elegantly that his doctoral thesis at the University of Utah, which described the solution, ran to only 32 pages.
The pair developed a page description language allowing one PARC invention, the laser printer, to reproduce documents exactly as they appeared on the screen of another PARC invention, the personal computer. But when Xerox dithered on commercializing their system, they quit to found Adobe in 1982. Their program eventually became standardized as PDF.
Adobe made the PDF specifications public and distributed the reader for free. These steps encouraged businesses and government agencies that generated lots of forms and documents to buy and use Acrobat, which still holds a market share that even Microsoft might envy. Microsoft recently announced that a new document creation and printing system would be included in its forthcoming Windows upgrade, Longhorn. But its version seemed so primitive and conjectural that investor fears that it would threaten Adobe's position lasted barely a day.
Warnock and Geschke ceded the CEO's job to Chizen at the end of 2000 and retreated into comfortable co-chairmanships. Since then, Chizen has grown sales by 42%, to $1.7 billion in the fiscal year ended November 2004. His goal is to make Adobe a $5-billion company; adding Macromedia's $500-million annual sales to Adobe's projected $1.9 billion for 2005 would get the company halfway there.