New Acrobatics

Although I use pdf files a lot, I dislike Adobe Acrobat intensely. For me, one of the great things about Mac OS X is that it enables me to create a pdf from any document without ever resorting to the Adobe program.

Wade Roush has much the same attitude to Acrobat, which is why his review of the latest release is interesting. Sample:

I’ve spent the past few days testing Acrobat 8 and an associated Web service, Acrobat Connect. I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of new features Adobe has provided to help people work together on documents over the Internet–even if those documents aren’t PDFs. When combined, Acrobat 8 and Acrobat Connect form a powerful (and potentially cheaper) alternative to established collaboration and presentation systems such as WebEx and Microsoft’s Live Meeting and Office Groove 2007. They also show how Adobe is beginning to benefit from its 2005 acquisition of Macromedia, the company that founded the interactive-multimedia industry.

Veteran Acrobat users needn’t worry that they’ll lose anything. Acrobat 8 includes all of the core functions of Acrobat 7, including the ability to create, review, search, encrypt, and export PDF documents, and to convert other kinds of documents, such as e-mails, Web pages, and Word files, into PDFs. (I tested Acrobat 8 Professional, which retails at $449. Acrobat 8 Standard, at $299, leaves out a few specialized features, such as the ability to work with CAD documents and create fillable PDF forms. Adobe Reader 8.0, the latest version of the company’s stripped-down PDF viewer, is still a free download.)

It’s the new collaboration features, however, that have me rethinking my negative attitude toward Acrobat and PDF. The features change PDF files–which I’d always seen as the electronic equivalent of museum cases, preserving sacred, untouchable text–into living documents that any number of people can alter, either separately or in concert.

For instance, Acrobat 8 allows users to create blank PDFs and add text by typing, just the way one would with a new Word file. That’s a major shift in itself; it means PDF can be a document’s “native” format, not just a way to package material created using other applications.

The program also offers better tools for providing feedback about PDF documents–a key feature for professionals like lawyers, publishers, or journalists. Conveniently, all of Acrobat’s commenting tools now appear in a single floating toolbar. If you don’t like the way your boss rewrote your section of the company’s annual report, the toolbar provides a whole playground of tools for expressing yourself: beyond the traditional colored-highlighter tool, there are tools for creating deletions and insertions, sticky notes, boxes, circles, freehand drawings, pretty little thought bubbles or “clouds,” draggable “callouts” with arrows that point to a specific passage, and “rubber stamps” saying things like “Draft,” “Confidential,” and “Sign Here.” You can even attach an audio file downloaded from your dictation machine.

Even cooler, though, is a new collaboration feature called Shared Reviews. When it’s activated, comments and markups added to a PDF file by reviewers are no longer saved within the document itself, but are uploaded to a central location on an organization’s computer network, such as a network server or Web server. Every time a team member opens the document, Acrobat retrieves the latest changes from the server. Whenever a reviewer adds a new comment, the program notifies all of the other reviewers. In other words, team members no longer have to wait their turn for access to a document, or create separate edited versions that someone must eventually merge back into the “master copy.” With Shared Reviews, many people can work on the same document in parallel.

My guess is that this might worry Microsoft quite a lot. Those of us who work in the Open Source world know that one of the factors which makes companies wary of moving to Open Office is that they have built their corporate working procedures around the commenting tools in Microsoft Word. (Virtually every legal firm in the western world, for example, uses the program in that way.) But companies also use Acrobat to “freeze” the final Word document in pdf form. If Adobe is offering a way of doing all this in Acrobat without having to go through the Word phase first, then they might find it an attractive proposition.