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Acrobat strategy coalesces into Adobe Document Cloud

For a monthly fee, Adobe hopes to bring us the less-paper office.

Acrobat Fill and Sign, one of the new mobile apps, looks like one of the most useful aspects of the update. Adobe

Add Acrobat to the growing list of Adobe products relying on the software as a service model.

Subscription Acrobat isn't new, but now that entire end of Adobe's business follows another big step down the road its design- and marketing-oriented compatriots have traveled. It joins Creative Cloud and Marketing Cloud with Document Cloud as the hub that ties the Acrobat products together. The "perpetual" version of Acrobat -- Adobe's term for what most people think of as 'bought' software but is really just a non-subscription license -- will remain available. Reader, of course, will remain free.

Adobe assembled some research to back up its decisions about how the product should evolve, but really it all boiled down to the obvious: people hate paperwork, think it's handled inefficiently and blame it for much of their misery at work. IDC's more helpful research also states what we all know -- there's a gap between paper and electronic document workflows -- but provides more useful business-case numbers.

What's new and different

  • Document Cloud. Adobe uses the cloud for what at least initially looks like somewhat basic storage and to sync settings and files -- there are no real management tools and it looks simply like a repository that you retrieve from and save to.
  • Acrobat DC Pro and Standard. While most of the tools and capabilities remain the same as the current version of Acrobat Pro, Adobe completely overhauled the look and operation of the desktop interface to optimize for touch operation and somewhat more simplified operation. Adobe has incorporated some aspects of the Photoshop imaging engine in order to improve the handling of scanned images, including automatic enhancements and perspective correction. Its electronic-signature support, Formerly EchoSign and now renamed eSign Services, is more tightly integrated with Acrobat and supports better workflow and tracking options. Export to PowerPoint, Word and Excel has been spruced up. For instance, it has better table handling and can create PowerPoint slide masters. PDF editing has been updated to allow for automatic text reflow (on a per-page basis, I think), rather than requiring paragraph dragging. Plus it supports formatted-list editing and spell check. A side-by-side view is one of the new text-recognition-cleanup features. And finally, you'll be able to save autofill entries for forms.
  • Acrobat Mobile. Available as an Android or iOS app, Acrobat Mobile finally brings full Acrobat features to mobile devices, and replaces Adobe Reader. However, if you're not a subscriber many of the features aren't enabled. It supports PDF creation, editing, commenting, signing and organizing, and syncs settings and docs between devices for handoff among them -- though the extent to which it can do these things depends upon your subscription level. You'll be able to photograph pages and edit them -- Acrobat creates a vector simulacrum of the font on the fly to preserve the look of the document that persists when you make changes. Windows Phone users are stuck with Reader, though a WP version is "on the roadmap." You'll be able to work with documents offline via the Mobile Link service.
  • Acrobat Fill and Sign. Frankly, this mobile app looks like the most compelling part of the whole package. Not only can you fill out and sign PDFs sent to you, but you make a form fillable ostensibly by taking a photo of it-- the latter only goes for Pro subscribers, though. Both Mobile and Fill and Sign will be free so that people outside your workflow can complete your PDF forms.

My take

There are two different variations of Acrobat DC -- Pro and Standard -- each with perpetual and subscription options. I suspect people will find it confusing to figure out which they'll need.

As far as I can figure, you'll need to subscribe to Standard at minimum for e-signature and document tracking or for creating PDFs on a mobile device; you'll need a Pro subscription if you want to edit text and reorganize pages on an iPad .

The perpetual Pro version retains its differentiators from Standard. These include important design features such as PDF/X and PDF/A validation and preflighting; audio, video and interactivity; version comparison, redaction and Bates numbering; and creation of accessibility-standard PDFs. Two new features debut in Pro only: the ability to turn scans immediately into editable PDFs and (sorry Mac folks) creation of more faithfully formatted PDFs from Word for Mac .

And for each of these there are both individual and enterprise plans: Acrobat DC with Document Cloud (end users) and Document Cloud for Enterprise. The latter adds more advanced electronic signature handling, workflow, user controls and support for third-party APIs to interface with real document management systems.

Creative Cloud subscribers -- except for the $10-per-month Photography program -- will automatically gain DC access via Acrobat DC.

If you subscribe to Acrobat starting now for the next 30 days or so, until DC launches, you can get it for $180 for the year, the same cost as the current Acrobat XI Standard subscription. (Adobe says it's $15 per month, but you have to commit to a year and pay it all up front, so that's pretty disingenuous.) I hope that will transfer to an Acrobat DC Pro subscription, since the Pro will be the same price. A Standard subscription will run $156 per year/$13 per month.

The prices will be the same in the UK and Australia, obviously adjusted for local currency. That means about £106 per year/£8.80 per month for Standard and £120 per year/£10 per month for Pro. For Australia, Standard will be about AU$204 per year/AU$17 per month and Pro will run approximately AU$240 per year/AU$20 per month.

On the upside, these are all cheaper than the current Acrobat XI Pro subscription.

As a comprehensive solution, Adobe's Acrobat strategy is still missing some important parts.

  • Dropbox, Google Drive and support for other popular storage services, though those two are on the roadmap.
  • More document management tools such as tagging and flagging, batch renaming and metadata editing (essential for dealing with paper-to-digital workflows).
  • Updated form-design tools. That process needs a makeover, too.
  • A nonprofit/education strategy (this goes for Creative Cloud as well).

Plus, given what we've seen of the Creative Cloud strategy, I don't expect the full versions of Acrobat to have perpetual options for more than a couple of years. As soon as subscriptions reach some magic number, and I don't doubt they will, the company will feel comfortable enough to cut the cord. I'll be able to give you a better sense of how well the system works, as well as what you may end up sacrificing in the non-subscription versions, when it's available in early April.

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