PDF In-Depth

Using PDFs on Corporate CD-ROMs

September 29, 2000

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The demand for universal publishing solutions is growing. Organizations of all types are seeing the benefits of a "produce once, distribute many" approach to documentation - hence the near instantaneous growth and popularity of the web. As this demand matures however, recognition is growing that documents should not only be cross-platform (equally useful on a variety of computers) but they should also be cross-media. They should be not only transmissible as text and graphics, but also usable for desktop multimedia, programmable for kiosks and presentations, printable in full resolution, and accessible for online and offline computers alike.

This expanded demand for cross-media documentation is driving new interest in Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). It is cross-platform, retains vector descriptions for full-resolution scalability, embeds fonts, has forms capability, is flexible and easy to program, is rapidly becoming the preferred format for the printing industry, has special search and security features, and can be distributed over the web (for viewing through popular browsers and as email attachments).

But the Web is not an ideal delivery medium for many uses of PDFs. In addition to the obvious issue of file size for large numbers of documents, some PDF capabilities are better served on CD-ROMs.

When to Publish to CD-ROM vs. Intranet or Internet

Briefly, there are six indicators that might dictate distributing PDFs and other files on CD-ROMs vs. over the Web:

  1. Controlled interface and searchability - Navigation on the web is via HTML pages and search engines. The very openness of the web makes finding specific information difficult. Constraining information to the physical capacity of a CD-ROM mandates a restricted context, a tighter interface, and limited searchability. This enforced discipline makes the information content easier to find and use.
  2. Quick, "rifle" distribution - The internet is essentially a "pull" medium. Either the user comes to the information because you have created a pull elsewhere for their attention, or the message is never delivered. Making that pull is usually an inefficient "shotgun" style that gets poor results. CD-ROMs represent a "push" medium that can be physically sent ("rifled") to a focused user base more likely to need or want the published information.
  3. Delivery of movies, files, installers, and executables - The internet is not efficient at delivering large numbers of medium to large files and is, for the most part, incapable of launching them. CDs are very efficient at delivering movies, installers and executables, as well as documents.
  4. Use on offline computers (laptops) - Depending on the user base, many potential users for a publication are not connected to the web when they need to access the information.
  5. Distribution security - Distribution is initially limited to only those on the physical shipping list.
  6. Broadband performance - Internet and even intranet speeds are too slow for quick navigation and delivery of information. Multimedia that is slow and balky on the web is much faster and reliable on CD.

Mixing PDFs with Multimedia - A Case Study

Wells Fargo CD-ROMCombining multimedia with PDF documentation on a CD-ROM results in focused communication of a message whose media can be interactively dictated by the user. Consider a recent national fundraising campaign project for Wells Fargo Bank.

The Task

    The objective of the project was to transfer campaign tools to over two hundred campaign coordinators in remote branches of Wells Fargo's nationwide network of banks. The tools included: campaign materials in the form of logos and Word templates, a PDF pledge form, and a custom-programmed Pledge Capture Utility that required installation on the user's computer running Microsoft Access software. This CD-ROM also provided an opportunity to motivate employees to promote the campaign.

It was important that the architecture of the CD was Windows and Macintosh compatible since the users of the campaign materials might be outside vendors using Mac computers, but the primary user - the coordinators - would be using Windows-installed computers. It was also desirable that the contents of the CD would start-up upon insertion in the CD-drive (cross-platform autorun). This dictated the creation of a hybrid CD that was half Macintosh and half-Windows formatted - this constrained the overall information capacity to roughly 320Mb per hybrid side.

The customer also had some Quicktime footage of the Wells Fargo stagecoach that they wanted to display on the CD. The main reason why we dissuade our clients from including Quicktime movies unless it is very important is that not every user has Quicktime installed on their computers. Viewing that section of the CD would require an installation step. Because some companies' IT security standards are strict, this might require a call to customer service and an installation date set just to look at the Quicktime movie. Any such installation reduces the likelihood that the CD-ROM would be viewed at all, much less more than once (repeated viewing should always be an objective of any publication).

The Solution

    We decided that a total PDF production was not in the best interest of the client. PDFs are an ideal medium for many things but not for mixing sound, transitions, and graphics. But some users will not sit through a multimedia presentation more than once, no matter how broken up and interactive.

So the following project architecture took shape:

  1. Autorun to a brief (2.5 minute) voice/music introduction to what is on the CD (created in Macromedia Director).

  2. Provide an everpresent "bail-out" button that links to a Multimedia Menu. This menu would be linked to brief explanatory multimedia clips concerning each content section of the CD (Graphic Guidelines, Pledge Form, and Pledge Capture Utility).

  3. Provide a link from the Multimedia Menu to a Documentation Menu (PDF) with links to all printable documentation, and launch capability for all executable files, multimedia content, Word templates, and an Excel file (a non-installable alternative to the Pledge Capture Utility).

Instead of inserting the Quicktime movies, we made video captures of key frames of all five footage versions provided by the client and used these as background art within the multimedia. In the title section, we also converted the QuickTime movie into an "animated" still-frame simulation that did not require the installation of QuickTime. Both of us got what we wanted.

When to Use PDFs vs. Multimedia on CD

Based on the empirical experience of creating the CD mentioned in this case study, as well as many others, I would like to offer these guidelines for when to use PDFs vs. when to consider using Multimedia in the production of CD-ROMs.

Use PDFs when the following are important:

  • Printability - PDF's universal printability is unparalleled in comparison to other formats, particularly multimedia.

  • Document fidelity and scalability - the Acrobat Reader enables scalability up to 1600%. PDF's on-screen look and print output have the proofing industry's highest level of fidelity.

  • Cross-platform files - PDFs work well on ISO 9660 cross-platform formatted CD-ROMs.

  • Launching interface - Adobe Acrobat includes a simple methodology for enabling a number of action steps, including "open file" for launching documents in other programs or executables.

  • Variety of source documents - PDFs are easy to create from virtually any program that can print a document.

  • Passwording security - PDFs can be saved with password encryption limiting file opening, printing, editing, annotation, and/or content selection.

Use Multimedia when the following are important:

  • Auto-launch verbal instructions - Most people prefer introductory explanations at the beginning of a CD-ROM.

  • Mixing sound with visuals - While sound files can be embedded in PDFs, mixing them with visuals (without reliance on Quicktime) is problematic. Multimedia productions (like Macromedia Director) are specifically designed to mix sound with visuals.

  • Tight timeline and transition control - Multimedia requires durations measured in seconds. Ideally, a new graphic is transitioned once every 5 or so seconds.

  • Creative flexibility - Multimedia programs provide a dynamic environment for the creation of:
    • Animation - multi-frame motion sequences

    • Cast creation - tools for drawing, creating, editing, coloring, typing, and graphic elements in a cell.

    • Lingo programming - a robust language for the programming of interactive navigation controls and effects upon the stage.

Wedding multimedia to PDFs on informational publications greatly extends the creative range, impact, and persuasiveness of the message being communicated. Wedding PDFs to multimedia provides more options for interactivity, navigation, cross-media documents and source materials, distribution, scalability and encryption. This is a cross-media marriage made in heaven!

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