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Adobe gives at the office

The software publisher hopes to boost its PDF document format with new versions of Acrobat for light-duty and high-end office tasks.

Adobe Systems is aiming to make its Acrobat electronic publishing software a standard business tool with new versions of the product that target different office skillsets.

The software maker is set to announce Monday three new versions of Acrobat and a revamped version of the free Acrobat Reader software used for viewing the portable document format (PDF) files Acrobat creates.

As expected, the new offers include a light-duty version of Acrobat designed to let workers easily covert documents to PDF. Acrobat Elements will integrate with common applications, including Microsoft's Office, so that most documents can be converted simply by right-clicking on them.

Acrobat Elements will be accompanied by Acrobat 6.0 Standard, replacing the current version of Acrobat, and Acrobat 6.0 Professional, a new high-end edition intended for workers using complex applications such as Autodesk's AutoCAD drafting software and Microsoft's Visio diagramming and drawing software.

The goal of the product segmentation is to encourage further adoption of the already widespread PDF format, particularly as the default option for sharing documents via e-mail and the Internet, said Shantanu Narayen, executive vice president of worldwide products for Adobe. IT managers already prefer PDF for e-mail attachments, because files in the format are smaller and can be opened on almost any type of system using the free Acrobat Reader, one of the most widely distributed PC applications in the world.

"What we've been hearing from enterprises is that they do want to standardize on PDF as the mechanism for how they share information outside the (corporate) firewall," Narayen said. "Our vision for PDF has always been focused on broad proliferation, and there's a lot of opportunity in the enterprise to achieve that...Acrobat Elements is sort of the entry point for getting enterprise to standardize on PDF. Then we can go in and show them more capabilities."

Jim Murphy, an analyst at AMR Research, said Acrobat Elements is essential for Adobe to expand Acrobat's appeal beyond publishing professionals. "It's something they have to do just from the perspective of getting business users to take advantage of the other side of Acrobat," he said. "They know about the Reader, but Adobe has to show people that can use PDF for creating documents as well as viewing them."

The company is likely to face several obstacles towards achieving that, including Adobe's reputation among laypeople for producing complex, intimidating applications that can take years to master. "The image of being difficult to use is part of what they're fighting," Murphy said. "I think they struggled with whether this should have the Acrobat name or if it needs to be classified as an entirely new product."

Adobe has addressed that by limiting Elements to a relatively simple palette of commands for creating PDF files based on existing documents, with most functions available just by right-clicking within an active document.

Advanced versions
More advanced users will find a wealth of new capabilities in Acrobat Standard and Professional, include a greatly expanded set of collaboration features for adding comments and making changes to documents. Acrobat can automatically incorporate all changes into a Microsoft Word document once the review process is over and gathers all changes and comments into a single file, so the whole document doesn't have to be sent back and forth.

"This is a huge nightmare for IT guys," said Jonathan Knowles, Adobe's "worldwide Acrobat evangelist." "They can't stand the fact people are sending bulky files back and forth just to add a few comments."

Acrobat 6.0 also includes expanded security features for digitally signing and encrypting documents, making it more feasible for banks and other institutions to send sensitive documents electronically.

The new Acrobat enhances support for adding XML functions, allowing PDF documents to become interactive forms that can exchange data with corporate databases. Adobe has initiated partnerships with SAP and other major enterprise software makers and is working on further collaborations to make PDF the preferred presentation layer for exhibiting and exchanging corporate data.

"We're really starting to deliver on this whole notion of integrating the transaction system on the back end with the productivity systems of the front end," Narayen said.

Laurie Orlov, an analyst at Forrester Research, said enterprise software makers have been happy to partner with Adobe because the PDF format offers an application-neutral solution to the challenge of presenting enterprise data.

"None of those enterprise suite vendors have particularly flexible or easy-to-use output formats," Orlov said. "They have no issues about partnering with Adobe on output because PDF works well and it works for everyone."

Acrobat Professional adds tools for creating PDF versions of complex engineering and business documents created by applications such as AutoCAD and Visio. PDF allows architects and engineers to easily exchange their work with clients and partners while retaining the complex formatting and structure common to such work.

"The Professional product is really when you have information created with specialized software applications, how do exchange that information?" said Narayen. "If you have multiple people you want to share with and collaborate with, you need something everyone can access, and PDF does that."

The new publishing applications will be accompanied by Adobe Reader 6.0, Adobe's free software for viewing PDF files. The new Reader includes support for viewing slide shows created with Adobe's PhotoShop Album and support for reading electronic books, formerly handled by a separate e-book application offered by Adobe.

The Microsoft factor
The new Acrobat products derive much of their value from tight integration with Microsoft software, particularly the applications in the company's Office package of productivity tools. That's despite a sometimes contentious relationship with Microsoft that became a bit more tense last year when Microsoft announced InfoPath (formerly XDocs), electronic forms software widely seen as possible competition for Acrobat.

Narayen said Adobe has a good record of cooperating with Microsoft in areas where it makes sense. "We work very closely with Microsoft on a number of areas," he said. "We've demonstrated that a lot of the value proposition of Acrobat is in extending the value of other desktop applications, including a number of Microsoft products. Our strategy is that we want to solve the problem of distributing information in a multiplatform world."

Orlov said that while Microsoft and Adobe remain competitors in some areas, it hard to say which direction the race is going. "If Microsoft's capability gets honed more precisely in terms of Office doing all the same things as Acrobat, it could get tough for Adobe," she said. "Or it could be that Adobe extends PDF to be so inclusive of everything Microsoft is doing that that they stay one step ahead of them."

"They're approaching the same problem but from different ends," Orlov added. "It all depends on whether the enterprise views this as a server-side problem, which is Adobe's approach, or a desktop opportunity, which is Microsoft's direction."

All of the new Acrobat product are set to ship in mid-May. Acrobat Standard will sell for $299 for the full product or $99 for those upgrading from a previous version of Acrobat. Acrobat Professional will sell for $449, or $149 for those upgrading from a previous version of Acrobat.

Acrobat Elements will mark a further diversion from Adobe's typical focus on boxed software. The company will sell Elements only under a volume licensing program, with a minimum order of 1,000 licenses at $29 per seat, unusually low for an Adobe product.

Narayen said the company can make money on Elements at that price and has the sales and support staff necessary to handle high-volume enterprise deals.

"We're confident it expands our reach and revenue for Acrobat," he said.

AMR's Murphy wasn't so sure. He said Adobe historically hasn't profited much from Acrobat, and Elements in and of itself is unlikely to change that. "I don't think they're going to make much money from Elements," he said. "It's part of the broader strategy. If they can get more people to use something like Elements, more content will be out there in that format, and that makes more companies interested in working with PDF."