Adobe's PDF-everywhere strategy

The ambitions of CEO Bruce Chizen for the PDF specification may result in a confrontation with Microsoft in the corporate documents arena. Is he worried? Not at all.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
8 min read
Adobe Systems wants to put more than a few pulp mills out of business.

Formed more than 20 years ago with the mission of ensuring uniform typefaces, the San Jose, Calif.-based software maker has since built a grand e-paper network, with Adobe products replacing or supplementing paper for tasks that range from tax forms to book publishing.

But with its Portable Document Format (PDF) now widely used for distributing documents electronically, Adobe now wants to expand the PDF format into a multiplatform foundation for viewing and sharing corporate data. It's an ambitious plan that will likely bring Adobe into more direct competition with Microsoft--though this would not be the first time the two companies have clashed.

Meanwhile, Adobe is looking to extend its reach with publishing and graphics professionals. Adobe Creative Suite, a package of software the company announced earlier this week, combines common applications such as Photoshop with new tools for collaboration and managing files. Among other things, the package is expected to help boost market share for Adobe's InDesign page layout software, one of the company's most competitive products.

Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen talked with CNET News.com about its suite approach, the future of the PDF and the possible confrontation with Microsoft, among other issues.

Q: For a long time, the PDF was something from which Adobe didn't get a huge amount of value. What prompted the decision to push it into the enterprise?
A: That really came from our customers. During about 1998 or 1999, we started having customers ask us to do more around the PDF and the Acrobat Reader. We realized that if we could provide more applications around the PDF as the file format and Acrobat Reader as the rendering platform, not only could we make many customers much more efficient and productive, but it could be a valuable revenue opportunity.

It seems as if going into the enterprise makes you more of a potential target for Microsoft, especially in markets like electronic forms. Any concerns?

There may be 70 million people who could really take advantage of what we offer.
The market we're going after is different from the market they're focused on. We're focused on those customers and those industries that care about the reliability of the document outside their environment, and they want to have intelligent documents that cut across platforms--and it's where good-enough--meaning HTML (HyperText Markup Language)--is not going to meet their requirements.

Our industries are banking, insurance, legal, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, government--places where they want to do business with partners or customers or citizens, where they can't dictate the operating environment. They don't want to tell their customers, "If you want to open a certain document, you have to go out and buy a certain operating system and a certain piece of software."

Or you have to switch your entire back end to a new server operating system.
Correct. That's not to say that Microsoft's not going to be successful. They will be very, very successful for internal processes, where the organization is committed to a complete Microsoft solution.

What we are focused on is those corporations that are truly multiplatform, internally and externally. That's a big market, if you think about the amount of paper--both real paper and electronic paper?that's used today and is still disconnected from enterprise systems. I saw one survey that said it was costing American industry $15 billion to re-keypunch information originally in a digital form. That's absurd.

Adobe Reader seems to be one of those software programs everybody knows but doesn't necessarily love. Is it going to get better in areas like loading times?
One of the challenges we've had with the Adobe Reader is that we've tried to accommodate more and more capabilities--the ability to handle more dynamic content such as moving images, still images and slide shows and to incorporate XML data--and we haven't been as efficient as we probably could have been and would like to be. You'll see that addressed in the next release of Acrobat and Adobe Reader. The goal right now is to significantly reduce the launch time.

Any concerns about competition from Macromedia's FlashPaper format?

Until there is a device that has a similar value to what a book has, the e-book market will continue to be nascent.
When I look at what Macromedia has done with FlashPaper, it's very similar to the approach we took with PDF 10 years ago. It's about reliable viewing and reliable printing.

And documents loading in a second or two.
Yeah, you can ding us for that. But I also believe that people want more than just reliable viewing and printing. We learned that from 10 years of experience. They want an intelligent document. They want a document that can be displayed on any device and interacted with on any device. They want a document that can handle the XML (Extensible Markup Language) data.

While we need to continue to be efficient in the way we do viewing and printing--and you've pointed out an area where we intend to improve--I do believe that customers expect more from the documents.

Have you been disappointed with the reception for Acrobat Elements?
It's hard to say. It appears that what corporations have done--even though we offered Acrobat Elements--is continue to buy Acrobat Standard or even Acrobat Pro. It's not like they're not licensing our products. I'm surprised that more people didn't move to Acrobat Elements, but I wouldn't say I'm disappointed.

But wasn't the idea to give basic Acrobat functionality to a new class of users?
That's the ultimate goal. Let's say there used to be 10 million people who use Acrobat for PDF creation; now there's maybe 11 million or 12 million. There may be 70 million people who could really take advantage of what we offer. Do we ultimately see Acrobat Elements as a vehicle to get us there? Yes. But if, at the same time, corporations prefer to give people Acrobat Standard, because they want more capability, I'm not going to argue with that.

There's been some back-and-forth between you and Apple Computer recently--what's the state of that relationship?
Our relationship with Apple is a great one. My relationship with Steve Jobs continues to be extremely strong--we communicate on a regular basis. Where we compete, we've agreed to compete. Where we partner, we partner aggressively.

Even though Apple's cut you out of some markets?
Even though it's cutting us out of some markets, yes. At the end of the day, we both have a vested interest in doing what's right for the creative professional customer. Our relationship with Apple is like a relationship in any marriage, good or bad. It's an important relationship for both of us to maintain and make stronger, knowing that there are differences.

And sometimes you both need your space?
That's correct.

Barnes & Noble dealt another blow to the e-book format recently. Why hasn't that idea taken off?
It's the device. I've said this all along: Until there is a device that has a similar value to what a book has, the e-book market will continue to be nascent. Today, to get a good e-book experience, you have to spend hundreds of dollars on a reading device, one that can only be read in certain environments because of lighting conditions, a device that has to be re-energized quite often, because the power consumption isn't there yet and a device that isn't very durable. You can't drop it on the floor and expect it to continue to work.

I do believe that as devices become less expensive, more durable, more powerful, with better displays, you will see e-readers--whether it's for books, magazines or industry documentation--that take off. But I think that we're a couple years away from that. The value proposition of a book is still pretty darn good.

Some of the broadest attention Adobe has gotten in recent years was surrounding the ElcomSoft case. Any regrets about how that was handled?
Looking back with 20/20, I wish that we could have had better communication with ElcomSoft, Dmitry Sklyarov and the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) before the whole thing went public. I'm sorry that we weren't able to do that, because I think we could have resolved a lot of the issues.

I think the bigger issue was it was an attack on Adobe, yet all we were trying to do was protect the intellectual property of our customers. We're not the ones who make the law. There are a lot of important people in the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration who are determining the laws of this country. Once they make a law, we're a corporate citizen; we have an obligation to follow that law. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) is irrelevant at this point in time. It was brought to our attention that somebody was violating the laws of this country. We have an obligation then to notify the correct authorities about what's going on. That I don't regret.

The applications in Creative Suite have been on fairly disparate development schedules before. How big a challenge was it to get everything done at the same time?
A large one. To get the feature trade-offs for individual applications versus what was in the best interest of the whole--that was a challenge. But at the end of the day, we pulled it off.

What is the argument for customers to buy Creative Suite instead of individual applications?
The big difference here is that not only are all applications in the suite other than Acrobat being significantly upgraded, but the way in which they work together is unsurpassed and something we've never done before. Any creative professional who is involved with Web design or print layout will appreciate the value of that integration.

Is part of the idea that this will help designers center their operations on Adobe applications?
It could be one more reason why designers decide to go with an Adobe solution. We still believe that the application unto itself has to be best-of-breed, but by having them work extremely well together--that could be the impetus that pushes somebody over the edge.

Version Cue handles a lot of functions similar to content management systems. Do you stand by what you've said before about Adobe not getting into the content management market?
At the enterprise level, we think that there are a lot of great solutions out there, like Documentum's solution or IBM's content manager. There are so many good solutions out there that unless we can figure out a way to add value--where we can differentiate ourselves--I don't think it's in the best interest of our users or the company to get into that area. I'd rather provide the platform that integrates well with all those other vendors' solutions.

And give some of that functionality to groups that aren't going to use an enterprise-level approach?
Correct. Version Cue is really designed for individual and work groups of 25 or fewer people. And as those individuals scale up, they're going to want a much more comprehensive, administrative-intense solution, and that's when they'll go buy an enterprise solution. And because we use industry standards that are built around XML schemas, we'll integrate well with those solutions. And we already are well along the way of creating partnerships with folks like IBM and Documentum.