Adobe's Charles Geschke questions status of American research and development

Company founder is fifth keynote speaker for the Williams College of Business' Distinguished Speakers Series | February 15, 2007

The man whose company invented graphics and publishing software for the burgeoning Internet raised red flags Thursday, Feb. 15, about the true picture of American research and development.

“What keeps me up at night is where our country is in terms of spending and investment in basic research,” said Charles Geschke, who co-founded Adobe Systems in 1982 and is now the retired co-chairman of the company that invented Acrobat Reader and Photoshop.

Geschke, who earned a bachelor’s in Latin in 1962 and a master’s in mathematics in 1963 from Xavier, spoke at Xavier’s Cintas Center for the Williams College of Business’ Distinguished Speakers Series. After describing his unexpected success in the developing software industry of the Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s, Geschke noted that American research and development into new technologies has fallen off in recent years compared to other developing countries.

“China and South Korea have increased government spending on research and development by 10 percent annually for the last seven years,” he said. “They recognize having a large share of researchers and scientists is critical for their future.”

He also noted that China and India will have increased their share of the world’s research and development personnel to 31 percent by the end of this year. And while the U.S. still leads the world with 34 percent of the total spent globally on research and development, the U.S. rank drops to seventh when the investment is measured as a share of the economy, putting it behind Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland and Japan. When measuring just research and not development, the U.S. falls to 11th in the world, and when defense research is removed from the picture, it slips further to 22nd.

He recalled the heady days just before the Internet took off when the Department of Defense dumped millions into the development of computer technology aimed at making computers a communication tool rather than merely for calculations. Geschke was at Carnegie-Mellon University then studying for a Ph.D. in computer science and was swept up in the new research.

“That’s what educated the major players in the Silicon Valley, including me,” he said.

Geschke ended up with Xerox in California in 1977, a company he later left with his colleague, John Warnock. Together they started Adobe. Today, he said, private corporations are shutting down their research programs and the government has scaled back.

“It’s very scary,” he said. “Wouldn’t we be better off if we had such government funded research projects as alternative energy or stem cell research? Business isn’t doing it anymore.”

Well, some are. Like Adobe. Geschke said the company keeps working on new product development, including Apollo, a new system that will create an Internet platform giving computer users graphic capabilities without the need for software. “We’re going forward with it,” he said.

The project reflects Geschke’s, and Adobe’s, business philosophy which has proven so successful—create a new market in which you are the first and major player, rather than competing in a market that already exists.