Adobe e-doc format under siege

The company's portable document format, long a de facto Internet standard, is being challenged by competitors looking for a piece of the electronic document market.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
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David Becker
6 min read
Adobe Systems' portable document format, long a de facto Internet standard, is under fire from competitors looking to muscle in on the electronic document market.

Autodesk, the leading maker of drafting software for architectural and engineering documents, recently began an aggressive advertising campaign urging customers to share documents in Autodesk's own Design Web Format (DWF) rather than in Adobe's PDF.

In addition, Macromedia introduced FlashPaper, a new component based on the company's widespread Flash animation format that allows documents to easily be incorporated into Web pages and printed.


What's new:
Adobe's popular PDF document-sharing format faces challenges from Autodesk and Macromedia, each looking to take a bite out of the market with their own new technology.

Bottom line:
Analysts say the rivals could be a real threat to Adobe, which attributed a major earnings boost last week to a new line of PDF products.

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One of the most influential Web design writers, Jakob Nielsen, recently attacked the widespread use of PDF for displaying documents over the Web, declaring the format "unfit for human consumption."

The challenges come at a key time for San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe, which attributed a major earnings boost last week to a new line of PDF-related products released earlier this year.

While PDF is firmly established in the PC world, "I think there's always the possibility of a real threat," said Rob Lancaster, an analyst for research firm The Yankee Group. "Adobe is attempting to entrench itself within business applications, extending the capabilities of PDF beyond its typical role as viewing software, and a big part of that appeal rests on the ubiquity of the viewing capability."

Chuck Meyers, a technology strategist for Adobe's ePaper division, characterized recent swipes at PDF as acknowledgement of the company's success in popularizing the format.

"The key thing that's happening is that as we get bigger and better...the area we're in is a little bit more interesting a target than it used to be," he said. "We're going to take heat from a variety of different directions."

The most pointed business attack has come from Autodesk, whose new advertising and marketing campaign focuses on the supposed faults of PDF for exchanging engineering documents. The campaign comes as a surprise turnaround, after Adobe highlighted compatibility with AutoCAD--Autodesk's main application for architectural drafting--as a key selling point for Acrobat Professional, the new high-end version of its PDF authoring tool.

Tony Peach, the director of DWF corporate strategy for Autodesk, says the campaign stems from customer inquiries about the best way to exchange engineering documents.

"The visual data in engineering documents gets very dense, and PDF doesn't know how to deal with that, partly because it's built on paper. Engineering is not flat--it's 3D, and engineers need a format that accommodates that."

Building an alternative
Autodesk decided the answer was to build up the DWF format it introduced seven years ago, making the format easier to use in key applications, and building new products around it. A little promotion wouldn't hurt, the San Rafael, Calif.-based company also decided.

"The fact that Adobe is aggressively marketing to this space means we have no choice but to try to educate our customers," Peach said.

Autodesk offers a free downloadable application--Autodesk Express Viewer--for viewing and creating basic DWF files. But with the move, it hopes to spur sales of Volo View--a $49 application with additional annotation and review capabilities--and future products that would add more collaboration tools.

"This is a new thing for us," Peach said. "We've only sold drawing tools--that's all we've ever done. Now we're talking about collaborative tools. But we see a pretty clear need here."

Adobe's Meyers said he's somewhat puzzled by Autodesk's decision to promote DWF by bashing PDF, given that engineers and architects will likely want to use both formats, depending on who they're communicating with and what kind of documents they're trying to share.

"It's pretty obvious they feel threatened by this, even though we think they're completely complementary," Meyers said. "We don't think that anything Autodesk is doing with DWF detracts from PDF."

Grossly misused?
While Autodesk's pitch is targeted at a select group of drafting and design professionals, PDF has come under much broader attack from Web consultant Jakob Nielsen, a frequent writer on Web usability.

In a recent paper published on his Web site, Nielsen argued that PDF is grossly misused all over the Web. People are forced to endure long waits for PDF documents to load in Adobe's free Adobe Reader software and navigate through complex document structures, he wrote, even though the only time they really need PDF is when they want to print a document.

"It's very important to distinguish between printing and online information access," Nielsen said. "I have no beef at all with PDF as a vehicle to distribute information for printing. The problem is that is exactly what it's designed for; it's very page-oriented in the way it packages information. Something that's designed for printing is not going to be optimized for a computer screen."

Nielsen said he's conducted several studies of Web-surfing behavior that show that improper use of PDF essentially breaks a site.

"Every time people would come across a PDF, they'd get lost or they couldn't find the information," he said. "Once they get into a PDF, you can pretty much kiss goodbye any hope of quickly getting what you want. The first thing that happens is that your computer kind of goes out for lunch and starts up this new application."

Nielsen advocates limited, clearly labeled use of PDF on the Web as a conduit for printing documents.

Adobe's Meyers doesn't argue with Nielsen's suggestion, just with the way he has delivered the message.

"When you get to down to it, he has some pretty good points," Meyers said. "But he's dumping it all on Adobe, which is like going to the W3C (Web standards body the World Wide Web Consortium) to get guidelines on how to design good HTML sites. There's a whole extended PDF community dealing with the design issues very well."

Flash ahead
San Francisco-based Macromedia has attempted to address some of the problems of misapplied PDF with its new FlashPaper product, available through the company's Contribute application for light-duty Web publishing. Web publishers can use FlashPaper to convert any document into a Flash file that can be displayed in and printed from a browser window. The results are more attractive and useful than documents in straight HTML and faster than those in PDF.

"We know the experience of clicking on a link to a Word document or a PDF and waiting for that document to open up...is not really what people are looking for," said Erik Larson, senior product manager for Macromedia. "If I see the little PDF icon, I'm generally reluctant to click on that document, because I don't know how long it's going to take to open."

Unlike PDF files, FlashPaper documents can't be saved or passed around by e-mail, making them appropriate only for Web viewing, right now. Larson said he expects many Web documents will be offered both in FlashPaper for online viewing and in PDF for distribution.

Adobe's Meyers said FlashPaper's functionality is similar to that of Acrobat six or seven years ago. "It's an interesting piece of technology, but quite limited," he said. "You can view things, you can print, and that's where it stops."

FlashPaper does offer some advantages for Web viewing, however--an area Adobe is working on. "What we take as a challenge for the future is that FlashPaper does come up pretty rapidly in your browser," Meyers said. "That's probably the biggest plus, and that's something we take into account for development of future products."

The Yankee Group's Lancaster said that while the Autodesk and Macromedia efforts may nibble away at the fringes of Adobe's Acrobat business, along with low-end PDF publishing tools from third-party software makers, there's no reason for alarm at Adobe.

"They're focused on moving ahead with the technology, not on the folks who are chasing them," Lancaster said. "There's so much potential for using PDF functionality in the enterprise...that's where they're focusing."