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Acrobat 7 focuses on advanced workflows based on its Intelligent Document Platform - but existing users won’t necessarily benefit.

When Acrobat was first launched back in 1993, Adobe had high hopes that the Acrobat PDF (Portable Document Format) would become the universal computer exchange standard and herald the advent of the paperless office. As it turned out the rise of Microsoft Office and the Internet put an end to that dream, but Adobe never gave up on its office-based aspirations. With this latest version and its central role in Adobe’s “Intelligent Document Platform”, Acrobat makes its most determined bid yet to put Acrobat technology back at the heart of office-based workflows.

The secret of Acrobat’s success lies in the freely available and ubiquitous Adobe Reader program, but to take advantage of it you need one of the paid-for Acrobat applications - Elements, Standard or Professional - to create your PDFs in the first place. Key to this, though usually working behind the scenes behind the convenient “Adobe PDF” print driver, is Acrobat Distiller. It’s this essential utility which takes a PostScript-based print-to-disk file from any application and converts it to PDF as an exact electronic replica. Distiller has now been updated to version 7, complete with support for Acrobat 7’s new PDF 1.6 format and a new proposed ISO standard, PDF/A, intended for the archiving of electronic documents. Otherwise there’s relatively little that’s new other than a largely cosmetic revamp.

Distiller remains central to the universality of Acrobat, but for the most important office applications, ie the Microsoft Office applications, Adobe extends Distiller with its PDFMaker capability. This offers one-click PDF authoring direct from the application along with support for extra functionality, such as bookmarks and live hyperlinks within converted Word documents. With each release Acrobat tends to improve its integration with the Microsoft apps and version 7 is no exception with the new ability to convert Publisher publications and multiple Access reports - though surprisingly this new support is limited to Acrobat Standard and Professional (as is all the functionality below).

More regularly useful is the new PDFMaker support within Outlook. Now you can quickly convert selected messages or entire folders to a secure and permanent PDF archive with Acrobat automatically adding bookmarks to enable you to quickly access your e-mails by date, sender and subject. Another nice feature is the automatic inclusion of email attachments and Acrobat 7 now offers a dedicated Attachments pane for handling these. When creating an email you can also now automatically convert an attachment to a 128-bit encrypted PDF for secure communication. And you can set up standard security policies for regular re-use. And combining multiple attachments from different sources into a single correctly ordered PDF report has been made easier with the ability to preview PDFs during assembly. You also have more control when adding headers, footers and watermarks to give your combined PDF report more coherence.

Email messages can now be output to easily-searchable, secure PDF archives.

The main Acrobat Standard and Professional applications aren’t only focused on authoring, they are also designed to help you make the most of your PDFs (incidentally a small but important advance here is much quicker application loading). One area that has been crying out for attention is a way to manage your PDFs and Acrobat 7 obliges with its Organizer window. This offers a typical Explorer-style tree view of your hard disk, providing a preview thumbnail and file details for all PDFs in the currently selected directory and a large preview of the currently selected file. Even better you can now quickly access PDFs based on usage history or via drag-and-drop “Collections”, containing say all the PDFs associated with a particular job. The Organizer also comes into its own for printing, combining and opening multiple PDFs at a time.

The new Organizer helps users take control of their PDFs.

One of the most common and most important uses for both Acrobat Standard and Professional is commenting on a central PDF sent out for review via email or the Web. The commenting process is still unnecessarily complicated, but Acrobat 7 makes life a little easier with its dedicated Comments menu and enhanced help and new features such as better text selection, the ability to paste in comments from the clipboard and a new Stamps palette. It’s also easier to initiate a review with a new step-by-step wizard that walks you through specifying a file, inviting reviewers and previewing the invitation.

By far the biggest change, and only available for Acrobat Professional users (as is all the functionality from now on), is the ability to invite users of the free Adobe Reader 7 to take part in the review process. When Reader users open the resulting “intelligent” PDF, a message alerts them to the new Commenting toolbar with which they can annotate the document. When that’s done, they can hit the Send Comments command and a small file containing just their comments is emailed back to the author who can then collect all suggested changes back into the original file. If your office workgroup is closed and already standardized on Acrobat 6 there’s little benefit to the new system but for more open workflows, such as designers working for clients, this ability to include anyone in the review process is a huge advance.

The most welcome new feature is the ability to enable Adobe Reader 7 users to participate in document reviews.

Not surprisingly designers generally are a major target audience for Adobe, and Acrobat Professional is particularly well-suited for technical work as producing, sending, viewing and commenting on large-scale layered PDF drawings is considerably easier than doing the same via print. With the latest release, AutoCAD users can now create a single PDF from multiple layouts, embed the original scale and import PDF comments back into the original file. Also useful are the new Callout tool and enhanced Measurement tool and the ability to open new windows onto the same file and to view different sections of oversized pages.

There’s even more power for graphic designers with a whole host of new functionality available from a new Print Production toolbar and sub-menu. Previously, Acrobat 6 Professional highlighted potential press problems via its extensive pre- flighting capabilities, with version 7 most common problems, such as near-invisible hairlines, missing printers’ marks and, crucially, RGB images within a publication destined for CMYK output, can all be fixed directly within the PDF. In addition the Output Preview for viewing onscreen separations has been enhanced to highlight potential gamut, ink coverage and overprinting issues and also offers access to the Adobe standard Ink Manager which can be used for converting spot colours to process. It’s great news for output bureaux which will be able to make last minute changes to avoid expensive mistakes, but designers are better advised to preflight and then go back to fix problems in the originating application.

With its new pre-press handling, Acrobat 7 Professional now includes all the functionality that was previously provided by Adobe’s Mac-only InProduction suite. It also now includes the previously standalone Adobe Form Designer, now renamed as Adobe Designer 7. At its simplest, Designer provides a wizard that walks you through setting up a form based on a blank sheet, an existing PDF or a preset template (strongly recommended). You can then drag on elements such as text fields, option boxes and dropdowns from the Library palette, customize them with the Object palette and use the PDF Preview tab to see what the finished form will look like. When a user opens the resulting intelligence-enabled PDF within Adobe Reader 7 they will be prompted to fill in the form onscreen and then email back just the form data. This can then be imported back into the PDF original in much the same way as comments.

Acrobat 7 Professional adds advanced prepress features.

Working with the presets like this it’s relatively straightforward to get up-and-running, but it’s important to realise that Designer 7 is not a simple utility but a full-blown and at times intimidating application. To make the most of it you’ll have to learn how to build in intelligence to your form to handle calculation and validation. Most importantly you’ll need to be able to bind form data to existing data sources. In particular it’s important to be able to understand and work with XML as this is how data is returned from the end-user’s PDF (though Acrobat does at least offer the ability to collect returned data into a CSV-based spreadsheet). It’s a lot to ask of the average user, but for enterprise-level work such XML handling is ideal. Crucially, it means that the user-friendly PDF can act as the hub between relatively relaxed interaction with the end-user and highly structured back-office data handling.

It’s here that Adobe’s vision of the Intelligent Document Platform lies, but the efficient XML-based transfer and handling of end user data is only half the story. To close the circle you need to be using Adobe’s dedicated LiveCycle server solution. And again XML proves central. To understand how you have to realise that the Designer form is itself built on XML (that’s why you need the PDF Preview pane). By saving the form template to Designer’s native XDP format and posting this to the LiveCycle server, the form itself is rendered at runtime. This offers a number of advantages such as the ability to render either to PDF or to HTML and to produce customized one-off PDF forms where the design updates dynamically to accommodate its data. Other elements of the LiveCycle solution include the ability to enable Reader users to save and digitally sign their forms, to store filled-in data as barcodes, to handle advanced security and review settings and even to automate final archiving.

Acro7designer.png: Advanced forms handling is possible with Adobe Designer - but mainly within a server context.

There’s no doubt that Adobe’s Intelligent Document Platform is a seriously impressive solution that builds on the ubiquity and familiarity of the free Reader 7 to connect people, paper, applications and data both within and outwith the office. For those organizations that depend heavily on paper handling – financial institutions, government agencies and so on - the potential boost to efficiency throughout the document workflow is enormous. But this needs to be kept in perspective. It’s important to recognize that we’re not talking about Adobe’s original universal, peer-to-peer vision of the paperless office – this is a niche, server-based solution aimed only at large paper-based organizations.

In many ways Acrobat 7 and its integration of XML and PDF as “intelligent documents” is a major, even seminal, release and one that will eventually affect us all as consumers. Certainly it’s the Adobe Reader 7 users who will see the biggest difference in their Acrobat experience moving beyond basic reading and printing to form-filling, digital signing, document review and so on. But what about the existing Acrobat creators? Here the situation is very different. Using Acrobat Professional, smaller workgroups can put their toe in the water with advanced forms handling but, for most, the only appreciable benefit will boil down to the ability to include outside users in document reviews. For Acrobat 7 Standard and Elements users the intelligent document revolution passes them by.

Ultimately, while Acrobat 7 opens up another important area of functionality and another major target audience, for most existing users it proves stronger on paper than it does in practice.

Tom Arah

Features
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Ease of Use
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Value for Money
4
Overall
4

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System Requirements: Pentium II, 128/256MB of RAM , 460MB of hard disk space, Windows 2000 (SP2) or XP, 1024x768 display, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

Jan 2005

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