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Microsoft gunning for Adobe's PDF format?

New Metro format could challenge the de facto standard for creating fixed-format documents.

When Bill Gates showed off the new Metro document format in Longhorn at a hardware conference last week, some analysts were quick to call it a PDF killer.

Indeed, there's plenty of overlap between Adobe's popular Portable Document Format and what Microsoft is planning to include in the next version of Windows. Metro is designed to do things PDF already does, namely to allow for the creation of files that can be printed, viewed or archived without needing the program that created them.

It's that omnipresence, analysts say, that Microsoft covets, laying the groundwork for a significant battle between the two formats.


What's new:
Microsoft's new Metro format, due in the next version of Windows, is designed to do things Adobe's popular Portable Document Format already does--namely to allow for the creation of fixed-format documents that can be viewed, printed and archived on many types of computers, without needing the program that created them.

Bottom line:
Some analysts see a struggle brewing, but the companies are downplaying such a scenario. Microsoft says Metro is designed to do only a fraction of what PDF can. Adobe says it expects that operating system makers will eventually move into areas once handled by third-party software but that there will still be room for different products.

More stories on PDF

"I'm sure this is a long-standing point of chagrin for Microsoft," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Microsoft understands the power of controlling a document format. You wield quite a bit of power with that."

However the two companies have sought to downplay the competition.

"There is a crossover at the very basic scenario," Gregg Brown, lead program manager for Microsoft's digital documents unit, said following a presentation at Microsoft's annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle last week. Brown said that if what someone wants to do is create a document and send it to someone else for viewing, both Metro and PDF offer similar abilities. But, he said, "PDF does an enormous amount more than that. We are focused just on that scenario."

With Metro, Microsoft basically wanted to create a file format that would handle two specific tasks. First, the software giant wanted a way to save files from within any Windows program that could then be opened, viewed and shared without needing the specific program that created it. Second, Microsoft wanted to use the same method for sending data to a printer that it uses for displaying data on screen. So Metro uses the same method for describing and understanding graphics and text that Longhorn's Avalon graphics engine uses.

But that is where Metro's ambitions end, Brown said, pointing out that PDF is useful for entirely different kinds of documents, such as multimedia files or electronic forms.

Adobe's Pam Deziel, director of product marketing for the company's Acrobat product line, agreed that PDF offered capabilities far beyond Metro's, describing the Microsoft format as a way to update the current Windows print architecture, which has become "a little long in the tooth."

But Gartenberg said Microsoft faces challenges even if it seeks only to supplant PDF as a way to view, share and print basic documents.

"The real question is why would someone do that as opposed to using PDF?" Gartenberg said.

The battle is an interesting one. Gartenberg noted that whenever Microsoft builds something into the operating system, "It's got a home-court advantage." However, PDF has been on the market for years, with software not only on Windows and Mac computers but also available for Linux, handhelds and smart phones. Metro is slated to be a part of Longhorn, the next version of Windows, which is scheduled to ship in the second half of next year.

"Once again we are talking about something that Microsoft is planning to do versus something that is existing and shipping in the market and currently in its seventh revision," Gartenberg said. "It's a fairly daunting task for them."

This is not the first time Adobe and PDF have been in Microsoft's crosshairs. When Microsoft originally announced its Xdocs electronic form plans in 2002, Xdocs was seen as a threat to Adobe and PDF. Indeed, the InfoPath feature that was eventually added to Office is a competitor to Adobe's server-based document management tools, known as LiveCycle.

Whereas Microsoft is choosing to take PDF head-on, Apple Computer took a different approach when it created Mac OS X's print format. Apple uses PDF as its native printing format and also as an option for saving any Mac OS X file. Though it uses PDF, Apple did its own implementation of the format, using the PDF details Adobe has published.

In fact, one of the things that may help Adobe is that the company is not alone in supporting PDF. Because it published the basic details of the format, it finds itself competing against other PDF creation and management products. On Monday, for example, Arts PDF announced its latest PDF product, challenging Acrobat directly with Nitro PDF, a $99 product for authoring PDF files.

Deziel said the company was not caught off guard by last week's announcements from Microsoft. "We've had conversations around Longhorn going on for a fair amount of time," she said. "We were familiar with the basics of what they talked about at WinHEC last week."

Deziel said Adobe is not threatened by Microsoft's choice to create Metro. Over time, Adobe said, it expects that operating system makers will move into areas once handled by third-party software. There is room for both technologies, she said.

"We expect that the Adobe technology that is so prevalent in professional print production work flows...will continue to deliver value to customers but that as Microsoft enhances the platform that there will be people that take advantage of that technology as well," Deziel said.

Beyond just adding the features necessary to make Metro a reality, Gartenberg said Microsoft will also have to line up key partners, including printer makers that will write Metro-compatible drivers, and third-party software makers--both those that will build Metro support into Windows programs and those who will allow Metro files to be read and managed on non-Windows PCs and other devices.

Microsoft has said it plans to make the technology available in a royalty-free license and last week made an initial pitch to partners, saying there are opportunities to extend Metro beyond what will be done in the operating system.

In a presentation on Metro, Brown talked about some of the benefits of the Metro system, including efforts to create files that take up less space than other fixed-format document files. To do that, Metro looks for repeated data. For example, if a photo is used as a background in 20 PowerPoint slides, Metro includes only one copy. Also, the system saves only those font characters that are used.

That offers only a modest advantage in Western alphabets but can be a big deal with character-based languages, such as Chinese and Japanese.