The Adobe Story - 1999-2001: Acrobat Takes Hold
Excerpt from recently released book from Peachpit Press

2 December 2002

Editor's Note: In collaboration with Peachpit Press, Planet PDF is publishing an excerpt from the recently released book "Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story" by CreativePro.com Editor-in-Chief Pamela Pfiffner, published by Peachpit. The Adobe StoryThis sample from the book's section titled '1999-2001: Planning The Next Wave' focuses on a timeframe in the company's now 20-year history that is a memorable one in the evolution of PDF -- both inside and outside the company, co-founded by John Warnock and Charles Geschke. Titled "Acrobat Takes Hold," the excerpt below recounts a period that was a key turning point for Adobe and for Acrobat/PDF, as the product and format moved from runt of the product line litter to one of Adobe's big dogs, and Adobe rose to the challenge and promise of the Internet. The Peachpit Web site offers several additional excerpts available for download, where the book can also be ordered. In recognition of the founding of the company on this day 20 years ago, the City of San Jose (CA) proclaimed December 2, 2002 to be "Adobe Day."

SEE ALSO: "The Ascent of Acrobat"

The Adobe Story - 1999-2001: Planning the Next Wave
by Pamela Pfiffner
Republished with expressed permission of Peachpit Press

If the first battle of the publishing revolution was waged on paper, then the next would be fought on the World Wide Web. By the close of the 20th century, the Web was transforming communication in terms of content distribution and commercial transaction. Unwilling to abandon its hard-won position in the printing and graphic arts markets, Adobe embraced the model of cross-media publishing, in which content once created is distributed through multiple methods, whether print or online. The company expanded its product line to include more-robust Web authoring tools, reinvigorated its page-layout line, and refined the software that served as a fulcrum between the print and online worlds. With PDF, like PostScript before it, Adobe had developed another industry standard.

Acrobat Takes Hold

1998 was a year of inner turmoil for Adobe, the company entered 1999 determined to reassert itself. Adobe's traditional graphic arts products continued to sell well, but Adobe executives knew that, as with PostScript before it, diminishing returns were inevitable. The more mature the product, the fewer features can be added with each update, leading to a sales plateau. If Adobe was to thrive into the 21st Century, then it had to look to new markets. The challenge before Adobe wasn't just to come up with sexy new software, either. What was needed was a technology platform around which a cohesive product strategy could be built.

The company didn't have to look far for the way out. It was right under their noses in the form of Adobe Acrobat.

In the years immediately following its public debut under the name Carousel in 1991, Acrobat seemed to many observers like a solution in search of a problem. The product had long been cast in the shadow of its graphics siblings. But surrounded by fundamental changes in communications and guided by Warnock's tenacity and unwavering faith, Acrobat had slowly transformed itself into an indispensable part of Adobe customers' daily work. As features were added to the technology and its suite of applications, Acrobat expanded its scope in Adobe's product lines: from printing, where it has virtually replaced what we knew as PostScript; to graphics, where it can serve as the Esperanto of file formats; to the Internet, where millions of Web pages are posted as PDF files; to corporate communications, where it provides secure document transmission.

Sales of each successive version of Acrobat indicated that the buying public had finally glommed on to Acrobat, too. It was clear that the unglamorous, misunderstood Acrobat would not only be the foundation of Adobe's future initiatives but also become a cornerstone of modern publishing and communications.

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To Web and Print

John Warnock illustration Mucca Design created this poster entirely from characters in Adobe's "Warnock Pro" font.
-- Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story

Acrobat's transformation happened gradually. The 1994 decision to distribute the Acrobat Reader free of charge did a great deal to perpetuate the technology. Acrobat then caught the wave of the World Wide Web in 1995, when Adobe formed an alliance with Netscape over the Amber technology, which enabled the Navigator browser to open PDF files on the Web. With Acrobat 3.0, released in November 1996, the PDF-Netscape integration was complete, making PDF a standard for posting richly formatted pages on the Web. Adobe later made PDF available for the rival Microsoft Explorer browser as well. "Getting into the browser made Acrobat an Internet product," says director of Acrobat engineering Bob Wulff, who started on Acrobat engineering when CEO John Warnock grabbed him in the hall in 1990, saying, "I just need you for two weeks." Twelve years later Wulff still works on Acrobat.

But the Web wasn't the only place in which customers were gravitating toward Acrobat and PDF. Print publishers, too, started using the format as a convenient means of distributing complex pages via email or on CDROM. A growing number of businesses recognized that they could send advertisements to publishing enterprises in a single PDF file with images, logos, and pricing information intact. PDF was an economical way to preserve the format and graphical intent of a publication or an advertisement.

Newspapers especially saw the value of allowing clients to submit files via PDF, which increased timeliness and reduced overhead. As more advertising agencies sent files in the PDF format to AP AdSEND, The Associated Press's online service that delivered advertisements to publishing entities worldwide -- the demand grew for more robust print publishing capabilities in Acrobat and in PDF.

Adobe Story Sarah RosenbaumSarah Rosenbaum has worked on the Acrobat team since 1992.
-- Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story

While color has always been supported in PDF, early versions lacked the color controls demanded by graphic artists. It was sufficient for newspaper publishing, but advertisers and publishers both clamored for more sophisticated color in PDF. Adobe responded in Acrobat 3.0 with print-savvy color-content support such as the ability to specify PDFs in CMYK for four-color printing and to output files in a prepress work. ow. Magazine publishers and packaging designers asked for Pantone spotcolor support, and they got it. Acrobat and PDF, originally an offshoot of the PostScript printing technology, was now becoming part of the print production process. "We realized we had an interesting replacement for PostScript," Wulff says. "Now people recognized that PDF was essentially portable PostScript."

The coupling of print capabilities with online delivery proved to be valuable for Adobe clients and publishers in general. Sarah Rosenbaum, who has worked on Acrobat since 1992 and who is now director of product management for the Acrobat desktop group, remembers receiving a phone call in early 1996 from the prepress manager for the Macy's West department store chain. Just before an ad was due to AP AdSEND, an error was found-an item was priced $40 less than it should have been -- and as Macy's West had stores in most states west of the Mississippi River, the mistake could have been costly. Had the ad been produced as separated films, correcting the error would have been time consuming and expensive. Using a beta version of Acrobat 3.0, Rosenbaum talked the prepress operator through the correction. "We were able to change the price and get it into the system five minutes before deadline," she says.

But while Acrobat 3.0 was finding converts in Adobe's traditional graphic arts audience, it was also gaining fans outside Adobe's usual sphere of influence. Acrobat 3.0 was the first version to support Japanese, thereby spreading Acrobat across the Pacific. The Internal Revenue Service began using Acrobat 3.0's interactive capabilities, which meant that tax preparers could fill in data fields on PDF tax returns. Acrobat 3.0 also included a plug-in linking it to Acrobat Capture, thereby enabling corporations to more easily scan legacy paper documents and turn them into searchable PDF files. The latter proved especially useful during a lawsuit brought against a large tobacco company that sent the equivalent of semi-trailer trucks of documents to the opposing attorneys. The plaintiff's counsel used Acrobat Capture to scan the files into PDF for easy categorization.

A keyword search of the PDF files uncovered critical evidence -- "the smoking gun," quips Rosenbaum -- that led to a conviction.

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The Quest for Security

If Acrobat gained traction with version 3, the next one put it into high gear. Acrobat 4.0, released in 1999, offered a host of features that endeared it to the corporate user, such as the ability to annotate and review files in collaborative environments. PDF is, in effect, electronic paper, and the idea was to bestow on it as many properties of paper as possible. The digital equivalents of sticky notes, highlighters, and pencils were included for marking up pages, along with text styles like strikethrough and underline for editing copy. Acrobat could compare two annotated files and indicate where changes had been made. Simple touchup tools were also added for basic text and image editing.

Financial institutions responded favorably to Acrobat 4.0's new security features, such as password protection and digital signatures. Also compelling for enterprise environments was Acrobat's ability to embed other file types in a PDF. So, for example, if the PDF contained financial data from a spreadsheet, the recipient could launch the actual spreadsheet from within the PDF for closer inspection. Windows PC users could also use Microsoft Office macros within Acrobat.

The drive to integrate Acrobat with the Web continued as well. One of Acrobat 4.0's more ingenious features was the ability to capture Web pages as PDFs. In a kind of reverse twist to displaying PDFs in a Web browser, Acrobat could reach out to the Web and take snapshots of Web pages and instantly convert them to PDF files, with graphics and hyperlinks intact and pages scaled to fit a target size. Users could even specify how many levels of a Web site they wanted captured at any one time. As was so often the case at Adobe, Web capture arose out of an investigation by an individual -- this time, Advanced Technology Group principal scientist Dick Sweet -- who showed it to Warnock. "He thought it was pretty cool," says Sweet, "so we did it." This feature has been incredibly useful for archiving Web sites, especially in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, during which so many sites disappeared.

Thanks to these and other enhancements in Acrobat 4.0, sales for the ePaper division, which houses the entire Acrobat product line, skyrocketed in 1999. Revenues increased 123 percent from 1998, more than doubling from $58 million to $129 million.

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Moving Ahead

Released in April 2001, Acrobat 5.0 became a star. Adobe Story Acroman Adobe expanded on earlier themes: For instance, PDF annotation was married to the Web, so that collaborators can mark up files from within a browser. Electronic forms can be published online and data filled in. Interoperability with the corporate standard Microsoft Office was extended: Users can instantly create PDFs from Word, Excel, or PowerPoint; and they can quickly extract text from a PDF file for reuse in Word or other applications. Yet at the same time, Adobe has beefed up security controls if the document author wishes to prevent the repurposing of content.

Acrobat continued to offer inducements to the graphic arts community. Version 4 had allowed graphic artists to export images in formats suitable for Illustrator and Photoshop and to apply graphics options such as compression and resolution on the fly. Added to version 5 were transparency effects and color-management features consistent with what's available in other Adobe applications. The extended font format OpenType is also supported.

Perhaps the feature that most propelled Acrobat forward was its support of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and the subset XMP (eXtensible Metadata Platform). XML classifies content by the information it contains and the use of that information as defined by its author. In the case of Acrobat and other Adobe products, the syntax used to define information is XMP. Content defined with XML tags can be used on flexible databaselike applications, making it suitable for e-commerce on the Web, for instance. By supporting XML, PDF becomes a medium for financial transactions, not just for static images. PDF provides the form's appearance while XML/XMP supplies the data. Other Adobe applications followed Acrobat's lead in supporting XML: Illustrator 10.0 in the fall of 2001 and InDesign 2.0 in early 2002. XML and XMP will soon be implemented across Adobe's entire product line.

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Doing Cartwheels

After the release of Acrobat 5.0, the year 2001 marked a milestone for Acrobat Reader: more than 400 million copies of Acrobat Reader have been distributed worldwide. According to the Web research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, PDF is second only to HTML in terms of ubiquity on the Web. "In 1994 we would go to the Web and count the PDFs by hand [using spidering technology] as an indicator of how well Acrobat was doing. In the beginning there were tens of thousands of PDFs. But when it hit 100,000, we stopped counting. We knew that it was going to take off," Wulff says.

After years of operating at a loss, Acrobat now more than pays its own way. Sales for the Acrobat family of products continued its upward trajectory in 2001, rising 40 percent (67 percent in the second quarter alone) and accounting for 24 percent of Adobe's revenue. All other Adobe business units, including graphics and PostScript, posted declines for the year. Acrobat is now Adobe's lead revenue generator, surpassing former kingpin Photoshop. Acrobat rivals Photoshop in another area as well: As with Photoshop before it, an entire sub-industry of PDF developers has taken root, with several hundred companies currently making plug-ins for Acrobat and related products.

For those who toiled in obscurity on a project that, to paraphrase a comedian, got no respect, being top dog is somewhat unnerving. "When you have a big product with big revenues, you can have big problems," Wulff says. Rosenbaum says that a Photoshop engineer jokingly thanked her for taking the pressure off his team.

But the rise of Acrobat signals more change than who has bragging rights within Adobe's stable of products. Acrobat is wending its way into every aspect of the company's development and marketing strategies and working its way into every corner of the publishing and communications fields as well. Adobe pictures a future in which everyone -- from studiobound graphic artist to on-the-run corporate executive -- relies on Adobe Acrobat and its related products.


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