PDF In-Depth

Carl Young on PDF, Flash and his tenth PDF Conference

September 27, 2005

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At this year's PDF Conference, the tenth in this series, Carl Young had reason to celebrate. The sessions were largely well-attended and the exhibit hall traffic proved to be of sufficient quality to put smiles on most vendors' dials. Along with his partner-in-crime and wife of 8 years, Jo Lou, Carl has put together a solid show.

Young is president of DigiPub Solutions Corp., founder of the PDF Conference, and author of Carl Young's Adobe Acrobat 6: A Guide to Getting Professional Results from Your PDFs. Carl is an Adobe Certified Expert in Acrobat, GoLive, InDesign and FrameMaker and a Certified Technical Trainer. He is also past president of the Phoenix Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication, and is founder and coordinator of STC's Arizona FrameMaker User Network and Acrobat special interest groups. In addition, he regularly teaches classes in Acrobat, FrameMaker, GoLive and InDesign in Phoenix and at customer sites throughout the United States. Young often presents on Acrobat on behalf of Adobe at trade shows and seminars. He also speaks on Acrobat- and FrameMaker-related topics at trade shows and conferences worldwide.

Carl is a busy man, having variously been an author, trainer and consultant, but I asked him to put on his conference chair hat to answer my questions about the future of PDF and Flash, Adobe's newly-minted user group initiative, and the conference business. I managed to catch up with him earlier today during the PDF Conference in Arlington. The interview transcript follows.

DAN SHEA, Planet PDF Managing Editor: First up, what's your 'mission statement' for the show as a whole?

CARL YOUNG, PRODUCER, PDF Conference: Well, with this show, I really wanted to talk to the PDF community. Let me see, I had all this stuff written down, and now I can't remember (laughs). What we're trying to do is to give people solutions to their most pressing problems. Frankly, the whole reason that Planet PDF exists is because people have problems with PDFs. If everything worked well, no-one would bother to come to your website, and no-one would come to my conference -- they would just sit around making PDFs all day. What we tried to do was to address some of the most pressing and important issues that we see come up on the Planet PDF site and other message boards, and to provide the needed answers. (As a result), we addressed Microsoft Word, and (the issue of) finding and recognizing problem PDFs. We had three sessions on that, and the rooms were packed! People were clearly very interested in that topic.

Somebody from Enfocus spoke (in one of those sessions), and only half of the room were from (Enfocus' traditional market) the press industry -- everybody else was from a large business. That tells me that people are starting to use tools like PitStop not only in the prepress world, but also in the corporate world to recognize and fix problem PDFs. PDF Tools AG was here as well, and they offer troubleshooting tools for PDFs. There are lots of other companies with tools out there, such as Antenna House, for instance, helping find solutions to people's PDF problems.

SHEA: This show marks a major milestone, being the 10th PDF Conference, so how do you feel the show has grown and matured since its inception in 2000?

YOUNG: In a way, we're returning to our roots. The first conference in Phoenix was basically an outgrowth of the Phoenix Acrobat User Group that I started there. I was holding user group meetings, getting 50 or 60 people. I thought to myself (that) I really needed to do a conference about Acrobat, because people had so many questions about it. Here at our tenth show, Adobe is here, and now they're starting user groups. In a lot of ways, it seems to me that we've come full circle to the conference's origins as a user-based show where people come to get their day-to-day PDF questions answered.

SHEA: I'm not sure if you are willing to give a number on the record, but what's the turnout like this time around?

YOUNG: We did pretty well this year. All told, we had 220 people, so that's a good turnout. I've been walking through the exhibit hall... it's been busy all the time and vendors seem really happy with it. I'm getting lots of compliments from attendees about how things have run, and I'm really happy with how it's going.

SHEA: What kind of feedback have you been getting from exhibiting vendors and delegates? I'm thinking particularly of the reaction to any changes that you may have made.

YOUNG: People seem to like the shorter expo a lot, because opening up the trade show on the first evening of the event just for paid attendees allows them to go and see the vendors. Today, it was open to members of the public, who could come in and see the exhibits, so the flow seemed to work out pretty well. I just spent the morning in the exhibit hall, and people seem to be very happy with the traffic they're having. I think it's working well just to have the exhibits open for one evening and then one day.

SHEA: What do you think have been the highlights of this year's show?

YOUNG: As always, we've seen some really cool products... For instance, Thom Parker (of Windjack Solutions) has some really good stuff coming up with AcroButtons, and now his new dialog box tool (AcroDialogs). Just seeing the products work, I mean, (ARTS) PDF Aerialist, for instance. It's been around for a long time, but just seeing that again and generating a table of contents from it. That (functionality) is always a big deal for many people, so it's nice to see it working, and so quickly, too.

As far as sessions, there's some basic things you learn that you just slap your forehead and go, "Why didn't I think of that before?" For example, in Ted Padova's advanced Acrobat session, he said, "Look, you can't save form data in the free Reader, but what you can do is download a free PDF print driver from the web. Have someone open up a PDF form in the free Reader, and then use the print command to print the data to that free print driver. That way, you get a PDF with all the form data in it. It's not the same thing as saving the form, but least you've got an electronic version of the information that you've filled out in the free Reader. And with a simple thing like that, you just go, "Oh, what a great thing for lots of people!"

SHEA: If you had to sum it up, how would you describe the changes in the PDF industry since you first started training?

YOUNG: Oh wow. Since I first started training using Acrobat? Well, there's been a great increase in the number of third-party tools that work with Acrobat to do specific functions. Acrobat itself, of course, has also grown from being a fairly small product to now just being this really large product that runs everywhere from creating huge engineering drawings to creating little files to be distributed over the web. There are all these new standards for Acrobat, you know? When I started, you had PDF, and it was a PDF, but now, you've got PDF/X, PDF/A, PDF/E, and I've heard about a new standard for accessibility. It seems like every time I turn around, somebody's finding a new way to use PDF and addressing a specific market segment, with a standard for that kind of PDF.

SHEA: What are your ambitions for the conference in 2006 and beyond?

YOUNG: Well, I'd really like us to keep our focus on the user, especially for the PDF community as it grows. I've been sitting here thinking about with the Macromedia merger, and maybe we ought to start incorporating some Flash things into the conference, because I think we're going to start using Flash in a whole lot more PDF. Also, one of the recurrent themes (in user issues) is the use of Microsoft Office products. I've got this thing in my head where we'd maybe set up a special track that would just be about using Microsoft Office products and creating PDFs. Those are some of the ideas going through my head now about how to really address the needs of the PDF community in a meaningful way.

SHEA: What's your reaction to Adobe's now-confirmed acquisition of Macromedia?

YOUNG: It's going to be interesting. First of all, for the industry, I think it's going to result in some really nice melding PDF and Flash. I think that's going to be really helpful for a lot of people. Someone on the panel this morning said that conceivably, Flash could have a built-in PDF viewer, so that if you're looking at something on the web, you wouldn't have to have the Acrobat Reader installed; you could just use Flash, and then let Flash display those pages for you. You could also then use a combination of PDF form technology and the Flash form technology -- there's a lot that could be done there.

I think it's going to be really interesting to see what Adobe and Macromedia are going to do with ColdFusion and Adobe's server products, and how those are going to impact on PDF and Acrobat. At the show next year, we will know more about what that's going to look like. Any time an acquisition goes through, it takes time. You know, first of all, the people need to settle in, then the company has to figure out where it's going to go, and finally shake things out, so I think it's going to be a while before we really know.

SHEA: What about Flashpaper? On one level at least, it was previously viewed as a competitor to PDF, but although we are advocates of PDF, Flashpaper did seem to have a home in the display of simple, flat documents on the web: it was very quick, simple, and intuitive. Do you see it either co-existing or being worked into the PDF technology?

YOUNG: Oh, I really do. I think it's going to be great from the PDF point of view, because I think it'll make PDF (capable of delivering) a richer multimedia experience. The great thing about Flash is that you've got all this sound and animation in a really small file format that displays well on the web. I'm excited about having that available more easily in PDF. On the other hand, one of the things people complain about with Acrobat and with Reader is that you've got to fire up this other application that seems a little slower than viewing Flash on-screen. I'm really hoping that we get the best of both worlds, that we'll have a richer multimedia PDF experience, and then on the web, we'll have a faster viewing experience of PDF and PDF Flash.

SHEA: What do you know about the Acrobat user groups that Adobe has launched during the show? What's your reaction to it, and what do you think will be the impact on the industry?

YOUNG: Actually, I don't know. As I have been talking about this, I don't actually have a clear outline of what it is exactly that Adobe intends to do with the user groups. I don't know if it's just going to be a website. They seem to be talking a lot about local venues; having local collections of PDF users get together for meetings with speakers, and stuff like that. I think it'll be very valuable. There's a real need for that, and I can see it being a benefit for (both) the user community and also for Adobe.

The downside to having Adobe be the chief "runner" of the PDF community is then that -- just because of the way that business works -- is that they're not going to be very interested in non-Adobe solutions to any PDF issues. That's my only concern about that, is just a total, 100% Adobe focus, and not being open to any solutions from any other, third party vendors, however valid or useful they may be. That's the downside that I see to Adobe running them compared to an independent group that would have some Adobe participation, but not be run out of Adobe's San Jose headquarters.

SHEA: We all know that PDF is huge, and I think that in previous shows, maybe you tried to cover everything, whereas this time, there's been a stronger focus: more case studies and more development of individual topics such as forms. Was that something that you set out to do from the very beginning with this show?

YOUNG: Well, it was really based on my experience talking to people in training classes, in that we've just been getting lots of calls about Adobe Designer. As I talked to people about what they want to use Designer for, they don't really know. I thought that we'd have some sessions at the conference about this so it gets some exposure, and so that people can make an intelligent choice (about) whether they want to use Adobe Designer or Acrobat to create a form. Plus, we've got a really big JavaScript community attached to the conference, and many of them wanted to know how to take their Acrobat JavaScripts and port them over to JavaScript for Adobe Designer. I wanted to address that, and it seems to be working out well.

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