Acrobat 5 Makes the Pitch For Online Sharing
Adobe swinging from graphic to corporate focus?

The Seybold Report
"Just as Netscape and Microsoft browsers have become the standard ways to surf the Web, so Acrobat has become the standard way to share and publish documents when complete fidelity between on-screen viewing and printed hardcopy is desired."

Republished with permission from:
The Seybold Report
Vol. 1, No. 1 -- 2 April 2001

By Mark Walter and John Parsons
Part 1 of 4

(Download a PDF version of this article. [PDF: 602kb])

Seybold Report Preface:
Striving to attract corporate customers without alienating its longtime constituents, Adobe has introduced Acrobat 5, a new version of its venerable electronic document viewer. Accompanying the new software release is PDF 1.4, a new version of the underlying Portable Document Format specification. Though the new software sports an updated user interface and useful incremental improvements, it is probably the updates to PDF -- including its metadata architecture, tagged PDF spec, and transparency model -- that are most significant.

It's been two years since Adobe released Acrobat 4, and, in that time, it has managed to maintain its enviable position as a staple component of the modern computer desktop. Adobe estimates that more than 220 million copies of Acrobat Reader have been distributed -- four times the number two years ago -- and each month millions more get released through OEM deals and Adobe's Web site. Just as Netscape and Microsoft browsers have become the standard ways to surf the Web, so Acrobat has become the standard way to share and publish documents when complete fidelity between on-screen viewing and printed hardcopy is desired. Adobe spent years and millions of dollars establishing Acrobat as the market-leading universal document viewer, and its persistence has paid off.

Seybold Report's Summary
ProductAdobe Acrobat 5
VendorAdobe Systems, San Jose, CA
UpsideImproves online collaboration; adds XML metadata and support for structure tree; introduces transparency model to PDF.
DownsideAdvanced security and transparency are not compatible with previous releases; e-book reading interface not yet integrated with core product.
Our TakeEvolutionary upgrade will become important over time because of the changes introduced in PDF 1.4.

For all its success with Acrobat, Adobe noticed in the late 1990s that the Web -- and HTML -- had muffled Acrobat's appeal as a universal document viewer, and the lack of association between Acrobat and business-critical functions (other than final-form publishing) left the product vulnerable to obsolescence. It is a testament to the longevity of print that Acrobat remains an extremely popular product. Yet Adobe's thrust two years ago -- to get Acrobat adopted as the leading review-and-approval tool for both corporate and Web applications -- has only met with partial success.

In Acrobat 5, due out later this month, Adobe is once again pressing its case for using Acrobat as a tool for sharing documents for review and approval. The changes to the product refine its existing feature set with a revamped user interface and augment the annotation and signature functions that are integral to corporate review cycles.

New Features

A significant number of new features are aimed at corporate IT professionals. Tops on that list are changes to the installation software that help administrators install and maintain Acrobat on a shared network server, rather than buying separate licenses for every desktop. This centralized licensing can be accomplished through network deployment tools from vendors such as SMS and Tivoli; it allows administrators to configure specific functions for groups of users, such as where a given department will be storing their annotations. The central administration extends to maintenance as well. Updates and plug-ins can be configured to download off the Internet from Adobe's site, to download from an internal site, or to not automatically update at all.

The changes to the user interface are aimed at the corporate market as well. Recognizing the popularity of Microsoft Office, Adobe has dropped its vertical toolbar palette and reverted to user-customizable horizontal toolbars, similar to Office. The menus and dialogs have changed as well, and keyboard shortcuts have been added, but, because most functions are accessed from the toolbar, the changes overall may appear rather subtle to the experienced user. For example, the left-hand pane still carries four tabs -- for displaying bookmarks, thumbnails, annotations, and signatures -- and still lacks a single, integrated view of internal and external links -- a criticism we leveled against version 4 two years ago.

On the plus side, all Acrobat functions can now be turned into batch functions that run on a group of files, and new functions can be added using JavaScript. A built-in JavaScript editor is supplied, and JavaScript support has been enhanced to work with forms and the Web capture facility, which converts Web pages into PDF.

XML support. Under pressure to extend PDF to include XML markup, Adobe has made changes in three areas. First, Acrobat forms can now be set up to capture data as tagged XML, as well as HTML and Adobe's FDF format. Second, Adobe is introducing a new metadata architecture to PDF, one based on an RDF-compliant DTD. Metadata can be attached both at the document and object level, and the DTD can be extended, opening up interesting possibilities for defining and embedding metadata other than the basic set supported in Acrobat 5. Third, Adobe has defined a way to embed structure into PDF. Called "Tagged PDF," it is a set of conventions for marking structural elements within the file. We'll discuss metadata and tagged PDF in more detail below.

Streamlining Paper-intensive Businesses

Many businesses that rely on extensive routing and review of printed documents are still in the midst of migrating those processes to electronic workflows. Several Acrobat features make the product well suited to that transition:

  • Fidelity with Print: Acrobat is still the best program for online delivery of documents that you want customers to be able to print as you intended. Whether it's a proposal, contract, detailed map, insurance claim or government form, Acrobat continues to serve this purpose well, and, for many people, lends a level of comfort to shifting from paper review to online review. In this regard, Acrobat 5 maintains previously delivered functionality.

  • Live Forms: HTML-based Web forms have replaced many paper forms, but Acrobat works well if you want online forms that still look like conventional paper ones. In release 5, Adobe has added support for multiple selections within a field (an array instead of just one string); support for JavaScript in forms; and support for XML capture, augmenting the HTML and FDF capture for forms offered in the previous release.

  • Digital Signature: Another feature that was new in version 4, digital signatures have been enhanced in several ways. First, one or more digital signatures can be appended from right within the browser, without any need to save the file locally. That should make it easier to implement Web-based sign-offs. Second, Acrobat 5 supports 128-bit encryption, significantly harder to break than the 40-bit encryption of previous releases. Of course, documents password-protected at that level cannot be opened by previous versions of Acrobat, so there is the option of sticking with 40-bit encryption. As before, the product provides a self-signing implementation and supports third-party certificate authorities, such as Entrust, VeriSign and CIC. Third, you can now send and receive Acrobat self-signed certificates via e-mail, so that you can encrypt documents for specific people on your distribution list.

  • Online Annotations: Comments can now be added to Acrobat documents from within the browser as well. In previous versions, implementing server-based annotations required the work of a third-party vendor such as Documentum. In Acrobat 5, online annotations are stored on a shared folder residing on a WebDAV server, ODBC database, Microsoft Office Server or ordinary network file system.

    Online comments with Acrobat 5
    Sharing Comments over the Web:
    Adobe has improved Acrobat's annotation facilities by enlisting the aid of a Web browser. Opening a PDF in the browser loads Acrobat inside the browser window. Buttons in the toolbar let you add notes, upload those to a server, or download others' comments.

The annotations within the document are the same as before -- they can be text notes, penciled sketches, graphical stamps or file attachments, and they are attached to physical locations of PDF pages, not to underlying structural elements. The difference is that now annotations can be stored separately from the source document, and users can upload, download, display and hide annotations that they and others have made. You also can sort comments by author, date or page number, though not by other properties, such as status or type of change, which would be helpful. Though the implementation is rather simplistic (and it breaks if you move files from queue to queue in a workflow), it is very easy to set up. We found that running it inside a browser also makes it much more convenient than the previous method, which was awkward for anyone collating comments from people who did not have access to the source PDF on a shared network folder. As before, there is ample room for third-party system vendors to improve on this facility, for example, by offering version control or extensions to the annotation properties, which are very few and not customizable in the shrink-wrapped product.

Taken together, these functions provide an alternative to routing paper or posting Web pages and e-mailing feedback. We believe they will work best when there exists a high degree of trust between the parties doing the review and sign-offs, or where the risks and liability for fraud are low. For example, expense reports, employee reviews and other intracompany forms that might not already have been converted to online applications would be good candidates for a Web-based workflow, complete with comments and digital sign-offs. Adobe's built-in self-signing certificate should work well for such purposes, where you don't need an external authority to vouch for the signer's authenticity. Routine intercompany transactions with trusted business partners would also be good candidates for online review and approval. Examples include insurance claims passed from agents to insurance companies, routine purchase orders between manufacturer and distributor, and design comps passed among agencies, clients and production facilities.

-- CONTINUED in Part 2 of 4 --

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