Adobe extends server push to Acrobat

The publishing software giant is preparing products that will allow its PDF document format to handle more than static text.

Publishing software giant Adobe Systems is set to continue its push into enterprise software with the announcement Monday of new server products that extend the company's ubiquitous PDF document format.

Adobe Document Server will follow through on Adobe's promise to expand PDF and the Acrobat software used to read and create such documents beyond static text.

Using the server software, companies will be able to embed PDF documents with images, media content and instructions using XML, the lingua franca of Web services, explained Julie McEntee, director of product management for Adobe.

Catalogs will become interactive documents that tie into back-end business software to process transactions, for example. Online instruction manuals can be enriched with media and interactive elements.

"The idea is to use that document as a transaction vehicle," McEntee said.

Adobe will also be releasing a new version of the free Acrobat Reader software used for opening and viewing PDF documents. Acrobat Reader 5.1, available for download starting next week, for the first time will include interactive features previously limited to the paid version of Acrobat used to create PDF documents. Readers will be able to add comments to a document and use virtual sticky notes and other features.

The new interactive features will be controlled by Adobe Document Server for Reader Extensions, which will turn features off or on--as determined by the document creator--each time a PDF document is served.

McEntee said the idea is to use the PDF format with which most PC users are familiar--the reader software is installed on more than 400 million PCs--as a "container" for handling business transactions and unifying data that needs to course through a variety of back-end software. While businesses have made great efforts to integrate systems such as customer relationship management (CRM) software and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, documents have been generally left out of the process, with much information still originating on paper and having to be manually entered into data systems, she said.

"What's limiting things today as far as efficiency is that businesses have dozens of document processes that are structured in different ways and that need to feed data into these applications," McEntee said. "The document process has simply been left behind. Companies are solving the problem one application at a time."

Joshua Duhl, document and content technologies analyst for research firm IDC, said it makes sense for Adobe to try to leverage the ubiquity of Acrobat with server tools. "Acrobat has mainly been about distributing final-form documents," he said. "This makes it more of a way to interact with your customers."

Adobe is in the midst of a far-reaching effort to make its software more central to business processes. The company began its server push early this year with the release of AlterCast image management software. The company also forged a partnership with e-business software giant SAP and acquired Accelio, a Canadian company that makes software for retrieving and sharing data submitted through electronic forms.

Adobe is scheduled to release its own versions of Accelio's products--Form Server, Workflow Server and Output Server--within the next two months. This would give it a long lead over Microsoft, which last week announced plans for a 2003 release of XDocs, electronic forms software based on its Office desktop applications.

Duhl said the XDocs salvo may have influenced the timing of Adobe's new server push, but not the substance. "Any time Microsoft announces that kind of thing, I think there's a sense of urgency," he said, "But if you look at Adobe's direction, they've been promoting this vision of e-paper for a long time. This is another part of that."

Adobe Document Server and Adobe Document Server for reader Extensions are set to be released by the end of this year, at prices ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 for each server CPU (central processing unit) they run on.