Adobe Acrobat 3

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A comprehensive and mature electronic publishing environment. With multimedia support and strong moves into the Net and data warehousing, Acrobat 3.0 bridges the gap between paper and electronic publishing without sacrificing quality.

Acrobat Exchange

Adobe has a problem when it comes to promoting its Acrobat electronic publishing technology. The trouble is that most people have already come across it through past experience with the Acrobat Reader program and they've not exactly been won over. For some time now a program's documentation has tended to arrive as an Acrobat file on the application's CD. Trying to wade through 500 pages onscreen hasn't been a pleasant experience and neither has wasting half a day printing it out. This latest version of the Acrobat suite attempts to address these problems and to develop in new directions.

However, it's the electronic distribution and exchange of otherwise printed material that still lies at the heart of the programs. Adobe is the creator of Postscript, the universal printing language that allows the same publication to be output to a 300dpi desktop printer and to a 2000dpi high-end imagesetter. Acrobat's PDF, or Portable Document Format, is built on a subset of Postscript that allows its files to be printed and also viewed onscreen. This means that files can be delivered electronically and only printed when needed. This move from print-and-deliver to deliver-and-print greatly increases potential access and slashes production time and costs.

The beauty of the link to Postscript is that the resulting files are simultaneously independent of the platform on which they were produced, of the devices on which they might be output and of the application in which they were created. The basic Acrobat component behind all this is the PDF writer. Once installed, this appears as if it were a printer connected to your system so that it's as easy to produce a PDF as it is to output to paper. With more advanced publishing applications there is an alternative option of creating a Postscript file and then running it through the supplied Distiller program. This allows embedded EPS graphics to be dealt with correctly and also offers more control over features like image sampling and compression.

Once the PDF is created it can be viewed and navigated with the freely-distributable Reader program. The Acrobat file is an identical wysiwyg equivalent of the printed page, but crucially it is not just a bitmapped representation. This ensures that the text remains searchable and also helps to keep down file size. This latter is absolutely fundamental to a medium that is distributed electronically and Adobe has done everything possible to keep requirements low. The text of this article, for instance, spread across a 3 page PDF takes up only 29k compared to 32k for the originating Word file.

The technology is certainly impressive and with Acrobat it really is as simple to get into electronic publishing as it is to print to paper. In a way this has been the problem. The attraction of offloading the costs and hassle of printing onto the customer has meant that many publishers have simply designed for paper as usual and then diverted the output to PDF. That's great for the producer, but for the recipient forced to view the resulting reams of static A4 pages onscreen it can be a major headache. The problem is that little or no thought has been given to the fundamental differences between the electronic and paper mediums.

Adobe has recognised this and the latest version of Acrobat enables producers to make the reading experience both easier and more worthwhile. The first step is to encourage users to design for the landscape screen rather than for the portrait page. Just as importantly, once the basic PDF has been created, the Exchange program allows it to be enhanced in a number of ways. It's possible, for example, to generate thumbnail images of each page or to quickly produce text-based bookmarks. Both thumbnails and bookmarks can be set to appear down the left hand side of the viewing window to help readers orientate themselves within a large document. It is also possible to add Post-It style notes to comment on, or personalise, the PDF.

These features are welcome but hardly exciting. Far more effective are the controls available from the links tool. This allows areas of the PDF to be marked off as command areas. When the Reader program's cursor moves over these areas it changes into a hand and clicking on the area carries out the specified action. The most obvious actions are navigation commands to take you to the next or previous pages, but it is also now possible to set up links to other PDFs or even to URLs. Changing to the Movie tool allows QuickTime or AVI videos to be imported for future playback. These movie files are stored externally to the PDF so are best suited for CD-ROM use, but WAV sound files can also be imported and are stored internally.

Using Exchange in this way, it is possible to add considerable interactivity to your Acrobat files and to move seamlessly into the world of multimedia. There are still a number of limitations; regions must all be rectangular, for example, and the new page transitions are only available when viewing full screen. More fundamentally, compared to top of the range multimedia applications there is no object or condition-based programming. Even so, Exchange offers a fair range of power and becomes a natural multimedia extension to a DTP program like PageMaker. It's even possible to set up a PDF file to run full screen as a kiosk-style presentation so that the user need never know they are looking at an Acrobat file.

Of course the future for electronic publishing is the Net and Acrobat files have already made quite an impact on the WWW. The design of Web pages is improving dramatically, but there is still a long way to go before HTML files can begin to compete with the magazine-style quality of PDFs. Previous versions of Acrobat allowed the Reader program to be set up as a helper application so that downloaded files automatically opened in a separate window. In version 3.0, the Reader acts as a true plug-in so that the PDFs are viewed and navigated within the browser. This integration really is a vast improvement and, combined with the new ability to navigate by hyperlinks, makes it possible to move seamlessly between HTML and PDF files.

In practice, such use actually depends on the bandwidth of your Net access and the size of the file - if it takes too long to download the PDF, most surfers will look elsewhere. To try and avoid this Exchange now offers the ability to optimize PDFs by compressing the file using zip technology. This can be up to 20% more efficient than the previous LZW scheme and further belt-tightening is achieved through intelligent handling of repeated background elements and of display fonts. More importantly, the new ability to download single pages rather than complete publications and the progressive rendering of text, links and then images, should mean that the delay before anything appears onscreen is more acceptable.

Unfortunately there are two major problems. The first is that integrated viewing is only possible with the latest browsers (Netscape or Explorer 3 and above). The second is that optimized files can only be viewed with the latest version of the Acrobat Reader. This is freely available - on the PC Pro CD for example - but millions of users are still using earlier versions. If they try and browse an optimized file they either get a meaningless error message or a system crash. Given this, most PDFs currently on the Net are still using the old technology though this will change in time.

One area where this incompatibility shouldn't be a problem is within a company Intranet where administrators can ensure that everyone is using the right software. With its ability to create PDFs from any platform and any software, Adobe already has an edge when it comes to Intranets. The latest Acrobat pushes home the advantage by including a cut-down version of its Capture program to allow existing paper-based material to be scanned and converted into PDFs and so brought into the company archive. Captured pages are automatically OCRed so that the text contained remains searchable. Adobe even includes its previously separate Catalog program that allows all created PDFs to be automatically indexed and its Search program that allows such indexes to be quickly and intelligently queried.

The archiving process is neither fast nor perfect and Adobe would clearly prefer users to upgrade to the full Capture program which offers better network options, batch processing and more overall control. Even so the potential is clearly demonstrated and clearly impressive. Previously all of these advanced Acrobat options - Exchange, Distiller, Capture, Catalog - were sold separately so to get the vast majority of their functionality for around 150 is incredible value. More importantly, the new all-round solution they offer becomes far more than the sum of its parts with each of the separate components meshing together well. With a technology that straddles paper output, multimedia, Net browsing, and data warehousing, maybe it's time to think again about Acrobat.

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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 24MB of RAM, 75MB of disk space, Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

April 1998

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