Learn to play the Adobe Acrobat Name Game
Some have come and gone, one makes a comeback; but do others -- like Approval -- face uncertain fate?

21 October 2002

By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor

Adobe Systems burst out of last week's bad news barrage with gusto today, rolling out a batch of new ePaper products and solutions, including a new, enhanced version of the free Acrobat Reader and several server-based options for creating dynamic PDFs (including forms and a range of other business documents) within an enterprise. With the new products comes the ever-growing challenge of keeping straight the various Acrobat Family product names and functions, and sometimes which names have changed -- and now and then, which names are no longer with us.

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One name we haven't heard the last of, but that we'll surely begin to see less and less of, is Accelio. With the new product introductions today, some of which are Adobe makeovers of products it picked up in its acquisition of the Accelio Corporation earlier this year, the dual Adobe-Accelio branding is now gone. "Adobe Form Designer" was previously an Accelio product, but its heritage is now part of Adobe Acrobat product history. Likewise, the Accelio Web site, once containing a wealth of information about the company and its business, is now relegated to serving as a one-click gateway to Adobe.com.

But we needn't look at Accelio's vanishing brand to identify potential sources of confusion within the Adobe clan. If you're one of those who still has trouble realizing there's a difference between Acrobat and Reader (or for that matter, between Acrobat and PDF, or between Acrobat and Adobe), or still wonder what happened to so-called Acrobat Exchange, or don't really know the difference between Acrobat Messenger and PDF Transit, the 'Name Game' just got a bit more complicated as the family reunion got more crowded.

Acrobat 1.0 Family

Reader v.1.0 began life as a commercial product, but its original suggested retail price was so far out of the realm of reality ($50 per copy) that the whole concept nearly tanked coming out of the gate in 1993. Luckily Adobe took measure of its initial marketing gaffe, and eventually made Reader a free viewing and printing tool for PDFs -- but they made sure it was so limited in functionality that, other than the lingering name confusion, no one ought to have had any problem differentiating between the two based on features.

Adobe had and has every right to expect to profit from the research and development it has put into Acrobat and PDF -- and limiting Reader to encourage Acrobat sales was certainly one part of that revenue-generating strategy. However, for nearly a decade there's been one criticism of its free offering that above all others Adobe has never adequately addressed: the lack of a bona fide "Save" feature in the free Reader. To most users -- right or wrong -- the ability to "Save" is practically a given in a software application.

It was a source of frustration in the early days when viewing a PDF file inside a Web browser, for example, using only the free Reader as a plug-in. Many a user eventually learned that a PDF file being displayed within a browser had, in fact, been downloaded to the local drive, "Saving" was crudely accomplished by fishing the file out of the browser's cache. Later, as "electronically fillable" forms arrived with the Acrobat 3.5 Forms Update, the lack of a true "Save" meant people could fill out PDF Forms with pre-built form fields on screen, but they could not directly save the entered data with the form itself. Several workarounds have emerged, but it has remained a source of confusion and annoyance. Why? It's hardly uncommon when part-way through entering data in a fillable electronic form that you encounter a question for which you don't have the answer at your fingertips. But it wasn't an option -- using the free Reader -- to save the form at that stage intending to return to complete it later without losing all data previously entered.

That's not to say Adobe didn't put *any* thought into dealing with this issue. First, there was the short-lived, meet-users-half-way solution with the introduction several years ago of the now-defunct Acrobat Business Tools (ABT), a product that cost-wise and feature-wise fell between the commercial Acrobat product and the free Reader. It provided a limited set of extra features above and beyond Reader at a nominal price -- increasingly nominal when purchased in quantity through Adobe's volume licensing program. But as it rolled out Acrobat 5.0 in early 2001, Adobe pulled a magic trick and made ABT disappear ... without any warning or explanation.

Adobe cancels Business Tools

Following a small but vocal backlash, Adobe backtracked and revived ABT -- but only for a limited time period, ostensibly to give companies and developers who had begun to build solutions around it to at least pack a parachute. Some bad feelings still remain over Adobe's questionable handling of ABT, as Max Wyss mentions in Part 1 of our recent interview with the prominent PDF Forms expert and advocate.

The successor to ABT was another between-the-gaps product -- not free, but priced slightly less than ABT and accordingly, with fewer features -- adding yet another new name to the Acrobat family: Approval. It seemed almost as much peace offering as product. According to Adobe, Approval was a better solution to the specific need that a sufficient number of companies, organizations, developers and users told Adobe they wanted addressed. And since it has even less functionality than ABT, Approval is even less likely to cannibalize sales of the full commercial product. Adobe also promotes its volume-licensing program for "full Acrobat" as the most economical way to resolve the problem -- the complete toolset at a significantly reduced price per seat.

With Adobe's new server-based products for electronic forms introduced today, some users no doubt are having a flashback. Will Approval now (or in the near future) vanish a la ABT? When colleague Karl De Abrew and I got a briefing last week on the new products from Adobe's Julie McEntee, Director of Product Management for Server Products, and Alistair Lee, Corporate Evangelist, we asked about Approval's future.

While initially there was some concern at Adobe that the new server-based forms products might negatively impact (i.e. kill off) Approval, according to McEntee, they eventually came to a different conclusion -- that they serve distinctly different situations and markets. So if you've invested in Approval or are looking to do so, at least as of right now the official word is that Approval will remain part of the Acrobat clan. That seems a right and necessary decision, given that the announced pricing of the new server-based solutions is well beyond what all but Adobe's large enterprise customers are likely to find justifiable. Approval offers an economical 'Plan B' solution to small developers and user groups.

As mentioned earlier, Acrobat has left a trail of product names in its wake over the successive versions -- what once was known as Exchange now is integrated, along with Catalog and Distiller, into the umbrella product name Acrobat 5. Adobe Doc Server 1Like ABT, another Adobe product that at one time seemed promising, but then vanished more or less without a trace was the so-called Adobe Document Server. Among other features, it could convert PDFs to several image formats including preview thumbnails, thus making PDF-based content accessible on platforms that were not Reader-supported, including services like WebTV. It's the engine behind the PDF-to-HTML conversion at Adobe's companion Accessibility site, Access.Adobe.com. The product remained listed at Adobe's Web site until fairly recently -- in fact, the online demo still exists as of today -- long after anyone ever seemed to be able to find a dealer for it. It was mothballed quite some time ago. As it turns out, that doesn't mean we'd heard the last of Adobe Document Server.

If you read today's Adobe news releases, in fact, you should have noticed a "new" product called ... "Adobe Document Server." It's not the same product that was launched in the late '90s, but it has assumed its identity. We asked the obvious question during last week's briefing call: 'Why?' According to the Adobe reps, they "liked the name," so snagged it from what we'll call Adobe Document Server 1 for use with Document Server II. Budget cuts in the creativity department? A case of identity theft?

Wouldn't "Acrobat Business Tools" have worked almost as well as a name, given Adobe's clear enterprise focus for the new server-based products? Despite its more controversial past, perhaps we haven't heard the last of that name either!


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