How Important Is Acrobat 5?--McIlroy
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.
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.
Different features appeal to different users and markets. Some people like PDF as a presentation format—it's interactive, and you can incorporate bullet text along with moving images and sound. Some favor its collaboration features—documents can be restructured, annotated and edited as they pass among a workgroup. PDF is probably the leading application supporting digital signatures, a key feature advancing the electronic document revolution. (When Bill Clinton signed into law the bill authorizing digital signatures, it was a PDF file that he "signed.")
Users have always had a love-hate relationship with the closed security of the PDF file format. Being a closed format, documents were inherently fairly secure and safe from tampering. Advanced security features are a big plus for PDF—using Acrobat, an author can prevent anyone else from altering or from printing a PDF file (or even from opening it without a password).
On the other hand, if you wanted to make major changes to PDF files, you had to turn to third-party software. If you wanted to copy something from a PDF file to another document, the best you could do was move it line by line. Looking at the wish list for Acrobat, users wanted more security features, while at the same time an opening of the format. That's a challenge.
So what about Acrobat 5's new features? Let's start with the basics.
Acrobat can now be installed and maintained over a network, so that the network manager can work from a single station and support an entire organization. PDF documents can also now be published and annotated over a network, local area or otherwise, directly through a Web browser. Acrobat's interface has been redesigned and simplified for the average user. Color management functionality is enhanced.
Acrobat has supported PDF forms for the last several releases, but new features will greatly encourage their adoption: they have all of the database linking and interactivity of HTML forms, but also with the paper fidelity of PDF and its secure digital signature features.
Strong Security Features
PDF document security has been beefed-up further with the addition of 128 bit encryption and with "precision" security features that enable authors to vary the level of security for different groups of users.
Probably the most important new features of Acrobat 5 and PDF 1.4 are the ways that Adobe has opened the format, rather than the ways it has secured it. PDF 1.4 now supports XML in an apparently full-featured manner, and supports export to RTF, the Rich Text Format. The implications of these moves will take some time to fully evaluate, but they appear to be major.
Microsoft's RTF has long been the document interchange format that many used and few talked about. There's no document format that is as widely accessible to developers, while remaining extremely robust in the richness of the document formats it describes. But in an era first of branded proprietary formats, and then "sexy" Internet standards, RTF fell below most publishers' radar screens.
Provided that documents have been properly prepared, it will now be possible to export PDF files to RTF files that can easily be imported into Microsoft Word and most page layout applications. At the same time, Adobe links vector graphics in PDF files directly to Adobe Illustrator and raster graphics to Adobe Photoshop.
The implications of PDF's incorporation of the XML standard are more difficult to evaluate. At first glance, PDF's relatively closed structure appears to be completely at odds with XML's far-reaching vocabulary and functionality.
XML is designed to turn mere documents into micro-structured, database-driven information repositories. Can XML-encoding within a PDF capsule offer users the best of both worlds? Will we be able to access PDF's secure and graphically strong power, and extend that to XML's multifunctional capacities? If a document is encoded with XML, can PDF still add significant value?
It will be many months before the answer is 100 percent clear. I suspect that the sum of the parts is profoundly powerful documents. Adobe has rewritten the Acrobat and PDF value equation, and the results are worth watching.
About the Author
Thad McIlroy is a San Francisco-based electronic publishing consultant and author, and serves as program director of Seybold Seminars. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.