Adobe Acrobat Learns New Tricks

For anyone familiar with Photoshop, it was a bit of a surprise to see Adobe Systems refer to Adobe Acrobat as “the company’s cornerstone software application” in its press statements. But in truth, not even the publishing and graphics industry’s de-facto-standard image editor can come close to the ubiquity — over half a billion copies distributed since 1993 — of the freeware Adobe Acrobat Reader that lets PC, Mac, and PDA users peruse Portable Document Format (PDF) files with formatted text and graphics.

And today’s announcement of the Acrobat 6.0 product line shows that Adobe wants to preserve PDF as a global document-exchange standard, even while embracing XML, the Extensible Markup Language that’s heading toward critical mass as a link between Web applications, shareable documents, and back-office data.

Along the way, it’s also hoping to stay one step ahead of a company that’d love to replace PDF with its own document-distributing protocols or special flavors of XML: Microsoft.

Just Say Reader
To reassure online manual and product-spec-sheet readers first, the document-viewing and -printing tool Adobe Acrobat Reader will remain free in version 6.0, to be available (with the other 6.0 products) by the end of May. It’s been renamed, however, to just Adobe Reader, with the Acrobat name reserved for products that create PDF files.

Acrobat Reader 5.1 already gives users access to not only documents and interactive forms but slide shows created with Adobe Photoshop Album. Version 6.0 will also support embedded multimedia content and incorporate the eBook Reader now offered as a separate download.

But Adobe doesn’t just want a world where everyone can read PDF documents: It wants everyone to create them, so office workers never need to waste paper with printouts or worry whether they have the same word processor, spreadsheet, or desktop publishing programs as their colleagues, even while reviewing or collaborating on files. That’s where the Acrobat 6.0 programs come in.

The humblest, Acrobat Elements, will be sold via volume licenses only (starting at $28 per seat for 1,000 employees); it offers not only PDF viewing and printing but one-button export or creation of easily distributable PDF files from within Microsoft Office applications.

Stepping up to Acrobat 6.0 Standard ($299, or $99 upgrade) adds 128-bit encryption and password protection for document security, as well as the ability to combine document types from different applications into one PDF file. The program also has commenting and version-management tools for workgroups conducting document reviews: Adobe promises that users can create a list of reviewers and track or log feedback from each; add highlights and indicate insertions, deletions, and replacements; and add, sort, summarize, and respond to comments which can be exported to Word 2002 to reduce retyping.

The heavy-duty Acrobat 6.0 Professional ($449, or $149 upgrade) supports the creation of electronic forms and more sophisticated e-mail and browser-based team reviews, as well as making PDF files from Microsoft Project and Visio and from AutoCAD. It adds enhanced tools for printing, viewing, and navigating large-format documents; using layers in technical drawings; and taking advantage of preflight and color separation features for professional printing, including the PDF/X standard for photo-ready, high-end color materials.

Beyond individual products, Adobe says Acrobat 6.0 introduces a new XML architecture for document creation, collaboration, and process management across the enterprise. Rather than simply switch from PDF to XML, however, Adobe envisions companies presenting XML data in PDF format; you might say that XML will enable different systems and devices to access corporate data, while PDF will enable different people to read it.

The company says its own server products will work with enterprise software from vendors like IBM and Documentum to simplify document management, digital signatures, and data collection. PDF documents will serve as interactive forms for data entry into enterprise databases, while dynamic rendering of PDF documents from XML will permit real-time search and retrieval reporting as well as traditional publishing. Adobe is also working with Intel and Tokyo’s Access on mobile technology solutions, including blending PDF with the latter’s cross-platform Web browser for access to PDF information using cell phones, set-top boxes, game consoles, or even car navigation systems.

In a sense, Adobe is playing a game similar to Microsoft’s with the XML-friendly Office System 2003 and InfoPath electronic forms package — stopping short of throwing over their own formats (PDF for Adobe, DOC and XLS for Microsoft) for pure or generic XML, but making sure their formats offer two-way integration with XML data from Web servers or corporate databases.

Adobe is going a step further than Microsoft in that it’s promising to make its XML specification publicly available and provide an XML toolkit for programmers to access PDF content using Java or common scripting languages, but both firms are walking a tightrope between branding and distributing their own client, server, and viewer software and embracing (or at least not seeming to sabotage) the XML ideal of both read and write access to any data by any application on any platform.

No matter what happens on the cosmic competitive level, the Acrobat 6.0 products seem sure to keep PDF going strong into its second decade. The biggest challenge may be to keep users up to speed with the new features of the platform, when most of them barely scratch the surface of the old features. (We’d been among the half-billion Reader users for years before we learned how to cut and paste portions instead of whole pages from PDF files.)

Adapted from

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