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Inside the Publishing Revolution: Images In Motion

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Like desktop publishing before it, a digital video revolution could put the power of professional systems into the hands of many. Adobe had conquered the printed page and the still image. Why not take on the moving image, too?
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The applications group members who attended the strategic-planning offsite in 1989 identified several emerging markets for Adobe. By 1991, the image-editing market was well in hand as Photoshop turned heads, changed minds, and opened wallets. Page layout was a two-product race between Aldus PageMaker and QuarkXPress. Digital video, however, was new, especially for a company with its roots in print publishing.

History was repeating itself, however. The market conditions that Adobe faced with digital video were similar to what the company had confronted a decade earlier. Like typesetting businesses, the video-editing suites of the day were closed, proprietary systems. But like desktop publishing before it, a digital video revolution could put the power of professional systems into the hands of many. Adobe had conquered the printed page and the still image. Why not take on the moving image, too?

Digital video confirmed what Photoshop had already hinted at: Adobe was capable of moving outside the PostScript box. The company also had the acumen and talent to acquire a good product from another company and make it even better.

Setting the Stage

An early stand-alone video-editing program for desktop computers, Premiere helped kick-start the desktop video revolution. Interest in using personal computers for film editing was growing, and the computer-generated special effects seen in commercial films, such as those done at Industrial Light+Magic, inspired budding filmmakers. Anyone who played with filters in Photoshop saw that images could be manipulated in interesting ways—it was natural to want to experiment with moving images too. Indeed, Fred Mitchell recalls visiting Photoshop coauthor John Knoll at ILM and seeing a prerelease version of Photoshop in use at Lucasfilm’s special-effects studio.

At that time, digital video editing was the domain of high-end workstations and proprietary software from companies like Avid Technology. The finished product was output to videotape. The hardware and software, sold as a complete system, cost anywhere from $20,000 to as much as $200,000, well beyond the reach of almost anyone but well-funded filmmaking studios.

In June 1991 Apple unveiled its QuickTime technology, which integrated multimedia capabilities into the operating system and let customers play video on their Macs. In response, hardware and software companies developed companion products for the creation and playback of QuickTime movies. Editing clips and playing movies heavily taxed computer performance, so personal computers needed to gain speed and power. Computer and peripheral makers tackled the problem with faster processors, video accelerator cards, and speedier storage devices. To bridge the gap between analog video sources and digital video editing, developers created video-capture cards, which allowed customers to import video from a VCR or High-8 camera into a personal computer, convert it to digital data, and play it back at high speed.

One of those companies developing products for this emerging market was SuperMac Technology, which sold several add-on processor boards that accelerated functions critical to digital video and that captured video frames from external sources. SuperMac also made software products—Photoshop competitor PixelPaint Professional among them—and had in development a nonlinear video-editing application as an adjunct to its film-capture cards. Called ReelTime, the software had been demonstrated publicly to great acclaim.

Like many other companies stretched too thin, SuperMac soon decided to disband its software division to focus on high-margin hardware sales. For most of 1991 SuperMac looked for a prospective buyer for ReelTime, talking to Adobe, Aldus, and Microsoft. In late summer Adobe not only purchased the software but also persuaded Randy Ubillos, its engineer and creator, to continue developing the software by coming to work at Adobe.

Fred Mitchell negotiated the deal. “The day John [Warnock] signed the agreement for Premiere he said, ‘I’m going to sign this, but this business is some years away.’ And he was right,” Mitchell says now.

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