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How Important Is Acrobat 5?--McIlroy

April 2001
By the time you read this column, Adobe will have announced an upgrade to Acrobat—called Acrobat, Version 5.0, and a new version of the Portable Document Format (PDF), Version 1.4.

I'd like to proclaim this the most anticipated new software release of 2001, and to call PDF 1.4 the "file format of the year." In fact, there's been very little advance buzz about either the new Acrobat or the new version of PDF. So I was surprised when I sat down with Adobe to take a look at what was coming in the software. I think it's a very important upgrade.

In this consumer age, we're conditioned to rate software upgrades by the number of new features included. A low count is a minor upgrade; a high count a major upgrade. The 4.0 version of QuarkXPress, for example, had as I recall well over 100 new features. Must be a major upgrade. But, in fact, it's been one of the least successful upgrades of a major piece of software in the modern era. The numerous new features just didn't much expand the utility of the product for the average user.

Adobe is not even bragging about the number of new features in Acrobat 5. There aren't a lot. But I think that they're important features that greatly expand the utility of the product for electronic publishers. (For print users of PDF, there's not a whole lot to shout about, and that's a disappointment.) The new features, taken one by one, probably won't sound like home runs for most users. But, taken together, the features are so significant that I'd rate Acrobat 5 a major upgrade.

Attractive Acrobat
The PDF format has been a fascinating anomaly. Designed originally purely as an electronic format, it found some of its first and biggest adherents among print publishers attracted to its compactness, completeness and relative reliability. As HTML usage exploded on the Web, PDF suddenly seemed too tightly controlled and a tad overweight in the free-form world of (loosely) structured text tagging.

But with each new release of the software, more and more of PDF's inherent strengths shone through, and electronic adoption expanded. By Acrobat 4, PDF had reached a kind of critical mass, and now the electronic usage of PDF (newly christened by Adobe as the "ePaper" market) turned Acrobat into a $100 million business. In other words, a big hit.

Ironically PDF's huge success as an electronic document format is clearly related to its familiarity and comfort for a generation raised on print documents. One analyst called PDF the perfect "tweener format"—a format appealing to publishers in between the all-paper generation and the upcoming all (or mostly all) electronic generation. PDF files can offer most of the attributes of paper documents—page structure, elaborate graphics and meticulous design—along with a bunch of bonus features that could only work electronically.

 

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