Planet PDF Weblog
A daily chronicle of Acrobat/PDF-oriented newsbits

For week beginning 10 March 2003
By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor

Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday


NOTE: Previous Weblogs will be archived at the end of each week, and start fresh here. You can also catch up on last week's Weblog.

MONDAY

PDF Usability Premise Put to the Test: In mid-2001 renowned usability guru Jakob Nielsen warned his disciples of the alleged dangers of using PDF files online in a column titled "PDF - Avoid for On-Screen Reading." A number of more experienced users of the Portable Document Format subsequently pointed out some of the flaws in Nielsen's reasoning and examples, as well in his seemingly limited grasp of Acrobat and PDF (and the differences between them).

Adopters of PDF who also are believers in usability -- contrary to Nielsen's premise, they are not mutually exclusive -- might have hoped that Nielsen had updated his thinking (and his copy of Acrobat, assuming he owns one) in the nearly two years since that infamous Alertbox column was published.

Alas, judging from recently published reports on a study examining problems with information found on corporate Web sites, Nielsen appears to be singing pretty much the same tune in 2003. CNN/Money quotes Nielsen in an article titled "Do investor-relations Web sites work?" as including among the four main flaws in or mistakes made by corporate IR Web sites:

"Many corporate web pages offer quarterly and annual reports only in PDF format, making them hard to browse online."

The "Designing Web sites to Maximize Investor Relations" study apparently analyzed the Web sites of some 20 companies. In his "UseIt.com" Alertbox column last month, Nielsen was more descriptive with his criticism of PDF as a Web-readable format:

"IR areas are plagued by PDF files, probably because they're a cheap way to put annual reports online. It is indeed helpful to let users download full reports, and you can save a lot of money when people make their own printouts rather than requesting printed material by mail. But to view information online in a way that lets them rapidly understand key information, users need simpler formats that don't require them to slowly page through presentations that are optimized for print rather than interaction."

So now PDFs are a plague?

Well, we didn't buy his reasoning in 2001 and certainly consider it even more suspect today. It's a reaction not blindly based on our obvious long-standing support of PDF, but on recent experience browsing investor-related information. In fact, we touched on the experience recently in a previous Weblog post about the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's acceptance of -- but only in addition to its "official" formats -- PDF-based financial documents. Documents in HTML and plain text are the official SEC formats, as the government Web site notes.

However, had the financial document we were seeking not been available in PDF, and which we first highlighted in a February 26 article titled "Adobe's SEC filing reveals future Acrobat hints," we might not have had the perseverance to locate the sought-after details scattered throughout the Form-10K (annual financial report) for 2002 filed by Adobe Systems.

The SEC's EDGAR site maintains a searchable archive of the required documents submitted by companies; you can view an index of documents available by company. For example, the recently filed Form-10K currently tops the list of Adobe Systems documents available from the SEC site.

Presuming, as Nielsen suggests most investors do, that you want to quickly get to certain portions of the document and key pieces of information, here's a tip: Forget about the HTML and Text versions! Instead -- and this assumes of course you have at least the free Adobe Acrobat Reader -- proceed immediately to the optional PDF version. For starters, it's smaller in file size than *either* of the other two formats. The HTML version [shown below] loads a single 1 MB-plus file into your Web browser, hardly something you'll find easy-to-navigate. And unless you narrow your Web browser window considerably, scrolling and reading the unformatted text file on screen -- one wide paragraph that wouldn't fare well judging by any serious readability measure -- will be a challenge.

Adobe Form-10K in HTML

But not nearly the challenge you'll have if you invite the displeasure of trying to view the allegedly plain text version of the same Form-10K file. A surprisingly coded, 3.7 MB file (Yes, more than FOUR times larger than the same file in the PDF version also available from the SEC site) slowly loads -- again, all text in a single page -- inside your Web browser. If and when it finishes loading -- and assuming your browser doesn't choke on the textual glut -- you'll need all the help you can get in trying to find anything meaningful in short order, or at all. If you want to talk 'plague,' this version is infested with usability problems!

Adobe Form-10K in PDF

In comparison, the PDF version [shown above] was practically effortless to load inside a properly configured Web browser. You can browse pages by thumbnails, and the built-in PDF search tool made it easy to quickly locate references to Acrobat and ePaper within the 116-page -- yes, that dreaded print paradigm, according to Nielsen -- document. Adobe's Form-10K is not even a particularly good example of how much more useful a PDF version could be -- for example, the PDF has no bookmarks, the document's Table of Contents has no active links to the key sections or to other related information, and the full-width paragraph formatting is no more readability friendly (probably by requirement). That may be understandable for the PDF version that can be downloaded from the SEC site, but Adobe has now posted another version on Adobe.com's main IR page that could have been made into a better example of a screen-viewable PDF, one that might help counterbalance at least one of the conclusions Nielsen makes about investor-related information on the Web.

By the way, if you want to read the nitty gritty of the research on Investor Relations Website Design from the Nielsen Norman Group, it'll cost you $248 for a single copy of the 121-page report, $468 for a version you can share around the office. And you'll need one other thing, as noted on the company's Web site:

"Download usability reports as PDF files"

Yes, don't forget to invest in a copy of the free Reader -- but realize that if you purchase the full commercial version of Adobe Acrobat, there's a lot more you'll be able to do with this and many other PDFs, including the ability to make the text "accessible" (so that it can be reflowed and easily viewed on smaller devices). Or to set your own bookmarks, add annotations, extract the text for repurposing and so on. Now *that* would be a prudent investment, we think.

Usability, you could say, is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.


   

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TUESDAY

Enfocus Founder Helped Establish Key PDF Market: To say the least, we were quite surprised last week to receive a phone call from Peter Camps, CEO and founder of Enfocus Software, giving us a heads-up and some background on his now-public plans to leave the company. Yesterday the company released the news that Camps' reign was soon to end, with another long-time employee -- David van Driessche -- poised to take the helm beginning next week.

During our brief chat, Camps seemed determined to explain that his surprising departure -- during the company's 10th year and on the verge of a number of expected product announcements later this year -- was a "personally inspired decision," and an agonizing one. It was time in his life and career, he concluded, for a "turning point."

Camps further detailed the circumstances that brought him to this crossroads. In 2000 Belgium-based Enfocus was acquired by a larger company, Artwork Systems; at that time, he says, he committed to stay on as CEO to lead Enfocus as an independent company within the Artwork graphics empire. The time had now come in 2003 to re-enlist for another prolonged stint, or to consider what new challenges he might want to take on during the remainder of his working life. All things considered, and being an entrepreneur at heart, Camps chose the latter. The search for that new challenge can begin when his tenure officially ends in late April.

As we told Camps, he'll be missed in the world of PDF, a file format whose potential value to the prepress industry he was among the first to recognize, as was evident in a 1997 Seybold San Francisco confab of developers who gathered to discuss PDF's virtues and vices -- and certainly among the early Acrobat plug-in developers to fill in some of the missing tools (not available in Acrobat) that helped enable the adoption of PDF for high-end printing and publishing.

Enfocus Pitstop remains a truly "must-have" tool for PDF editing and troubleshooting, and other related product and concept developments -- such as its industry-honored "Certified PDF" workflows designed to produce trouble-free PDF files, and the company's standardization efforts around PDF/x (a prepress-oriented subset of the PDF Specification) will be part of Camps' legacy. Acrobat versions 1 and 2 never really took hold in any specific industries, and it was not until version 3 -- *and* the subsequent development of key products from the likes of Enfocus, Lantana, Quite Software, callas and a few other smaller companies -- that PDF could become a legitimate, reasonably reliable prepress format, despite its many other virtues. Without this initial PDF beachhead established in printing and publishing, it's reasonable to conclude that Acrobat and PDF may never have achieved the level of success we have seen in more recent years.

There are many in that industry who now believe Adobe's interest (with InDesign being a possible exception) in prepress and printing has waned, with the new corporate focus -- especially for the Acrobat/ePaper products and solutions -- heavily slanted toward the potentially greener and larger pastures of the corporate enterprise market. As David Zwang recently wrote in The Seybold Report on a meeting of the Ghent PDF Workgroup, another Enfocus-inspired, but otherwise independent effort to collaboratively develop prepress standards based around PDF/X: "In the eyes of many members, Adobe increasingly seems to have relegated the professional publishing market to a back seat in its PDF development and marketing strategy."

No doubt Camps departure will be a hot topic for discussion at this week's annual meeting of the Digital Distribution of Advertising for Publications (DDAP), where he's been a presenter in the past. The DDAP, another key force in the drive toward standards, is among the members of the recently established Ghent PDF Workgroup.

None of this should suggest a radical change in Enfocus' mission or commitment; a lot of good and smart people remain, including incoming-CEO van Driessche, who according to the company's news release announcing his appointment was the first employee hired by Enfocus. (He also wrote one of the first drafts of an Acrobat/PDF FAQ, based on version 3, which was published on Planet PDF.) Rather, it signals mainly the departure of a good friend of PDF and of the PDF-for-Prepress community, one of its early advocates in an industry that helped firmly establish the file format. For that, we all -- including Adobe Systems -- owe Peter Camps a debt of gratitude. We at Planet PDF wish him well in his future challenges.

And to David van Driessche and the continuing Enfocus staff, with offices in Belgium and the U.S., we add: 'Keep up the good work!' After all, we've come to expect that from Enfocus.


   

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WEDNESDAY

Rescued Teen One of Many PDF Poster Children: Maintaining a Web site is a continuous gardening job, an ongoing chore that can include updating previously posted information and adding fresh, relevant content on a regular basis. When the focus of a site, however, is missing children, such updating may not often be a pleasant experience -- outcomes of reports, when they are known, typically don't have happy endings.

Today's news that kidnapped Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart turned up not only alive, but in reasonably close proximity to the family home from where she'd been snatched at knifepoint nine months earlier, was one of the exceptions. A number of governmental, organizational and personal Web sites that had previously included details of her disappearance were happily being updated as the report of her seemingly miraculous rescue circulated.

fbi_elizsmart_recov

The FBI's site featuring missing children reports, for example, soon pronounced Smart "recovered." Likewise, the Laura Recovery Center's site, a source of many valuable resources for families and friends facing such painful ordeals, quickly changed its listing for Smart to "found." One site that perhaps understandably didn't get updated the same day was ElizabethSmart.com; one can imagine the site's content managers had better things to do immediately upon learning of her return home.

elizabethsmart_pdfposter2

Although there's no indication they played any role in her discovery, especially considering that the case seemed all but permanently unsolved when the primary suspect died while being investigated, it's worth noting the prominent use of PDF at several of these sites, in the form of posters designed to raise public awareness and related documents developed to help organize and manage a rescue operation.

elizsmart_poster_pdf

ElizabethSmart.com features a pair of PDF-based posters and various other resources in PDF, including a Child Safety Kit, a set of volunteer forms and a "Bulletin for Game Hunters," the latter to elicit search support during hunting season. The Laura Recovery Center site, source for some of the forms cited above, has a large assorted of related resources to help manage all facets of a post-abduction or child disappearance campaign -- even providing a way to create and directly email a PDF poster of a missing child, one of the forms of assistance it offered on its Elizabeth Smart page.

What the Elizabeth Smart recovery demonstrated, in addition to the family's perseverance despite the odds, was the value of an informed, alert public. PDF has a role in the resource mix, based on a sampling of missing children rescue sites.


   

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THURSDAY

Two Contests End, New Book Promo Coming: We wrap up our two current promotions when we announce the final winners tomorrow for copies of the "Creating Adobe Acrobat Forms" book by John Deubert, published by Peachpit Press, or free vouchers from Adobe Systems for taking the new Acrobat eForms ACE examination. Congratulations to all of our randomly selected winners, and thanks to our respective co-sponsors!

We've got another promotional contest coming up soon, so watch soon for details. This one will be of special interest to anyone using PDF in high-end printing and prepress -- a chance to win a new book we firmly believe is the best we've seen on this niche application. In fact, some of you may want to just purchase "The PDF Print Production Guide," outright rather than take your chances in our upcoming contest, in which we'll again give away eight copies during a four-week promotion. Co-authors Joseph Marin and Julie Shaffer have picked this book with a lot of real-world expertise and practical tips. There's an entire chapter devoted to answering common PDF-for-Prepress questions, taken directly from GATF training programs and seminars.


   

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FRIDAY

No Post Today: Day Off!


   

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