PDF In-Depth

EDITORIAL: How 'open' is PDF?

November 29, 2006

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Government trends toward 'open' solutions have this year led some to announce the abandonment of entrenched proprietary Microsoft software while retaining Adobe technology and PDF as the exchange format of choice, and I can't help but be disappointed with Adobe's apparent hypocrisy. Adobe has worn the openness of the PDF format as a badge of honor -- and rightly so, for the most part, with this property putting it in a position to become the de facto document standard that it is today. The major benefit of an openly-specified format is that, given time and know-how, anyone can work with it.

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton earlier this year, Chizen himself said, "We had anticipated for many years that the revenue we achieve around PDF creation would, at some point in time, go away. It's an open standard! There are many clones out in the marketplace today that create PDF and compete with Acrobat." Chizen goes on to say that Adobe's future PDF-related revenue will be based around the more advanced functionality of its Acrobat product family such as forms, collaboration and multimedia. By implication, Adobe cares less about the source of PDF documents than what its own applications can do with the resulting files. For this reason, the current storm over free PDF creation from within the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite seems to run against Adobe's stated creed of openness.

Although PDF creation functionality in Microsoft Office was originally slated for inclusion in the pending release of Office 2007, it seems that Adobe czar Bruce Chizen may not have directly threatened Microsoft after all. A report from Reuters early last week suggested that Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen had threatened Microsoft with a lawsuit in an interview with German financial publication Euro am Sonntag. Working from a Google translation of the interview transcript, BetaNews writer Scott M. Fulton III noted that the specific wording was heavily qualified and that, despite suggesting that Microsoft's behavior was 'illegal', Chizen simply refused to rule out the possibility of a lawsuit. Further, the statement refusing to rule out the legal action was offered in response to a direct question from the interviewer.

At the end of the day, the developing situation between the two software giants has the potential to get quite nasty. While such an explosion would likely make for some great news, it's likely that it would be customers who ultimately paid the price in convenience. Given that the PDF specification is and has always been freely available, the choice to build a widget to create, view or manipulate PDF documents has been contingent only upon the ability to meet financial and opportunity costs of development -- along with access to the requisite programming nous, of course. There are many free PDF creation tools out there and open-source Office competitor OpenOffice.org already offers native PDF creation functionality, so if free PDF creation functionality is not at the root of the current tensions, Adobe's objection must be a matter of scale and not principle. Microsoft is no small-to-medium development company, and unlike such lower-profile players, it has the marketing and development muscle to seriously challenge Adobe. Of course, this has been said of the Redmond giant for years, so that in itself is nothing new.

Adobe is in a difficult position, as 'closing' the PDF format now would likely result in a huge loss of goodwill at the very least, while leaving the door open may force Adobe to contend with what could be a powerful direct competitor in Microsoft. For the moment, it unfortunately appears to have settled on a middle position that smells of hypocrisy.

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