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Adobe's Warnock awarded Lovelace Medal

Pdf pioneer honoured

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Yesterday evening Dr John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe, was awarded the British Computer Society's Ada Lovelace Medal by BCS president Professor Wendy Hall CBE.

The prize is given to individuals for making a significant contribution to the advancement, or the understanding, of Information Systems. Ada Lovelace is remembered as one of the first women to make an impact on computing. She was assistant to Charles Babbage and began corresponding with him on maths and logic when she was just seventeen.

Warnock, a collector of books about Charles Babbage, said he was honoured to receive the award. He then treated attendees to a potted history of his career in the computing industry.

Warnock described his first project at Evans and Sutherland in 1974 to create a simulator for piloting supertankers into New York Harbour. He described the project as impossible because: the company had never done anything similar before; it was a three-and-a-half year project but had only a year left to run; and there were only four people on the team. The team created a virtual machine which ran on a PDP11 with 32k of memory. This controlled six racks of special hardware. Following this success, the team created a simulator for the space shuttle.

From 1978 to 1982 Warnock worked at the legendary Xerox PARC, leaving to set up Adobe in 1983.

In his speech, he gave the first public explanation of how Adobe solved the "font problem" - that fonts could not be accurately recreated from scans and needed to be hand-tuned to look presentable. The company had been unable to patent the solution to this because "it was so bloody simple".

Warnock had the basic idea for pdf in 1984 when he had to create samples of print documents to show Steve Jobs at Apple. In 1991 he realised how useful it could be for the Web. He recalled it was a battle to convince the board that it would be useful. Since then 600m copies of the Acrobat reader have been downloaded.

Asked why Microsoft had never challenged the software, he replied: "For the longest time they just didn't get it. Didn't get the subtlety of publishing and the importance of how things look and not just the content of the ascii text."

Warnock also had some advice for software startups today: "There was no great planning in what we did, the company evolved. You have to follow the river - it's the same now. There is no magic formula, but don't hire MBAs." ®

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