Seybold Report corrals vendors for definitive PDF Shootout
Independent user survey conducted in tandem, results for both unveiled at Seybold PDF Conf 2002

17 May 2002

By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor

Not unlike its human developers and enthusiasts, the life of a software program includes certain rights of passage -- important milestone events that help measure its past accomplishments and determine its future.

The early period of blind acceptance is distinguished by a lack of critical analysis, often fueled more by marketing hyperbole than serious independent assessment. Early assessments can overlook fixable shortcomings, and often are tolerant of enthusiastic, but not independently verified, claims and promises. Eventually the day of reckoning -- serious industry judgment -- arrives.

Seybold SF 2002

For Adobe Acrobat and PDF, the date is September 10, 2002, almost 10 years since the software and file format were officially launched by Adobe Systems. And by no coincidence, the venue is the same as in 1993 -- the annual fall Seybold Seminars conference in San Francisco.

The forthcoming, climactic event will be the result of a two-pronged effort to research and produce the first thorough, independent and well-documented measure on the state of these Adobe technologies; results will be first unveiled at the Seybold PDF Conference SF 2002 being held within the main SF 2002 Conference.

Prong 1 is being dubbed as the "Seybold PDF Workflow Shootout," a series of carefully developed and exhaustively documented file preparation and printing tests conducted with more than a dozen key vendors under the watchful eye of key industry experts. Heading up that effort is John Parsons, Senior West Coast Editor of The Seybold Report, the premiere industry publication on publishing that is "no stranger to these kinds of shootouts," says Parsons. Prong 1, Part 1 will be an output phase using select files from the previous stage, conducted with a slightly larger group of relevant vendors.

Prong 2 of the Seybold-directed study will feature a widely distributed survey designed to gather useful and vendor-neutral information about uses and users, including both authors and publishers. Coordinated by Hans Hartman, co-chair of the Seybold PDF Conference, the survey will cast a wider net than the Shootout, which has a distinct focus on printing applications of and implications for PDF.

Parsons told Planet PDF early this week that the first stage of the Shootout is "well underway," noting that the set of four carefully constructed project files -- created with standard industry applications from Corel, Adobe, Quark and Microsoft -- were delivered to each of the vendor participants last Friday. They have 10 days to complete the required tasks, Parsons says, which are in part representative of the typical processes that would be followed in a commercial printing environment to "produce viable PDF prepress files" from each of the four test documents.

One project requirement that's not typical of the normal "time-is-money" print shop workflow is the need to accurately and thoroughly document all variables, steps and results, including computers, tools, costs, time required, etc., Parsons says. Each vendor most chronicle an "excruciatingly long list of data points" that will become part of the project's enduring "public record" and that will provide a basis for Parsons' eventual analysis of the first phase and of the overall project's ultimate conclusions. All reported results will be subsequently verified by teams of volunteer experts from within the industry, Parsons says, which serves as a sort of spot check that vendor-reported results are repeatable and plausible. Any noteworthy discrepancies will be duly noted in the publicized findings.

Phase 2 of the Shootout -- the "Output" portion -- is expected to begin around mid-June, Parsons says, with all required results due to Seybold by the end of the month, allowing adequate time for processing, compilation and analysis of all data. In addition to thorough documentation, output participants must provide both proofs and film, which will become part of a gallery exhibit at the SF conference, from the provided PDF files. An optional part of the Shootout's second phase will offer an opportunity for vendors to output a special set of test documents -- PDF/X1a files -- developed in conjunction with CGATS.

Hartman expects to have the survey portion of Seybold's extensive PDF analysis ready to go live "during the June/July timeframe." The goal will be to develop "hard data" -- meaningful statistics developed independently of any company's claims or wishful thinking -- on the primary uses, common issues and, where available, user-implemented fixes -- on PDF.

The survey questions are close to being finalized, Hartman says. When ready for prime time, the survey will be available online at a special Seybold URL (to be announced) and will likely remain accessible for about a month.

Summary results from the Shootout and survey will be first announced and discussed at a special session held during the fall conference in San Francisco. Detailed reports will be available for purchase -- the $450 dollar report will include nearly all data from both phases of the Shootout and the survey. Parsons says that The Seybold Report will also publish at least a couple articles following the conference that will share some of the top-level findings.

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