« Heard in the Valley | Main | Off to Scotland »

The Launch of Acrobat, TED3, Monterey, 1992

I registered for the new TED.com site today, which has a personal profile section (looks like they're moving rapidly towards social networking). There's a field on the profile page for "My TED story", which led me to think about my TED experience. I couldn't fit the whole story there due to their 1,000-character limit, but here it is in its full glory.

I've been to one TED conference, TED3 in 1992. I was the product manager for Adobe Acrobat, which we launched at TED3. John Warnock gave a talk on the future of digital documents, and I did the on-stage demo.

So far, so good, and all a matter of public record.

What you might not know is that, at the time, Acrobat was still well over a year from release, and as a result, wasn't completely stable. We could open PDF documents, including fairly complex files, but we suffered from intermittent and unpredictable crashes. And I truly mean unpredictable: I could do a clean restart, launch Acrobat, and open a document with perfect results, then do another clean restart and perform exactly the same steps and get a crash. This was made worse by the fact that, as part of the demo, we wanted to show conversions of some of Richard Wurman's ACCESS guide files -- extremely complex maps and the like that were destined for press use.

Not good.

At the time, the Macintosh was our leading development platform, so we did most of our demos on it. But we also had less-advanced versions running on Windows and DOS, which we showed mostly in static form -- "look, here's the same document we showed you on the Macintosh, already open in Acrobat for Windows". So if we were going to suffer from a crash, it was going to be on the Macintosh.

At the time, Apple shipped a debugger for the Macintosh that would intercept a system error and bring up a debugger window instead of an error dialog. I had this running on my machine when I discovered the existence of a configuration file that allowed the user to set the foreground (text) and background color of the debugger, which was full-screen. I realized that if I set the foreground and background colors both to black, a system error would immediately display a blank screen.

I explained the situation to John, telling him, "If the screen goes blank and I say something like, 'It looks like we have a video feed problem, so could we please switch the projector to the Windows machine?' that means that Acrobat crashed, so please talk for a moment while I reach down and reboot the Macintosh. Also, could you not ask me to switch around too much between documents, or scroll around the really complex ones? That seems to cause problems fairly regularly." He didn't complain or criticize at all and said it wouldn't be a problem.

Now, after all that, when we went up on stage, Acrobat worked like a charm -- my debugger trick turned out to be unnecessary. Of course, John was enthusiastic and wanted to show off his baby, so he had me switching back and forth between documents, zooming, scrolling, doing everything. Not a problem in sight.

After the presentation, Richard walked up and handed me a TED3 speaker's 'TED bear', which I have to this day.

A postscript to this story is that when we showed Acrobat at a Seybold conference not long after, and ran essentially the same demo, it did crash -- and thankfully, I was still using the same debugger trick. Acrobat crashed, the screen went blank, I gave John the verbal signal, and he covered for me perfectly.


TrackBack URL for this entry:


Dear Frank, I remember this presentation well. I was there in the audience. How amazing is the impact that Acrobat and PDF had on the world?

Tom Rielly
TED Partnership Director

Tom, what a delight to hear from you after all this time, and how nice that you still remember the presentation.

I have nothing but fond memories of TED. A good friend of mine attends every year, and I find myself thinking more and more often that I need to start going once again. Of course, with next year's conference already booked, I won't be there until 2009...

Post a comment