When you think about enterprise software, Adobe Systems is probably not the first company you think of. But during 2005, the company best known for PhotoShop and Illustrator is hoping the change that. Of course, if Microsoft were really watching closely, Adobe might find itself with a serious challenger.
Adobe is trying to turn its Acrobat portable document format into the lingua franca of corporate document management. If you have enough money, Adobe has a family of servers that work with third-party document management solutions to provide a complete solution for document storage and recovery.
The company has also claimed a space in forms management, offering servers that, for example, allow any Acrobat Reader user to store partially filled forms for completion later. This is something the Reader software wont do by itself and I have to wonder if the reason it doesnt has more to do with protecting Adobe revenue that maintaining control of data.
Adobe has also recently announced a deal with GeoTrust to provide secure digital forms, assuring users that their information is safely encrypted and will only be sent back to the proper e-mail address for processing. Adobe is making something of a big deal out of its ability to provide document security in a file format that, while open, it controls.
The recently introduced Acrobat 7 software, while still too expensive for wide corporate consumption, at least allows users to create a document than can be reviewed and annotated by users of the free Reader product. Previously, reviewing and annotation required a copy of Acrobat itself. Version 7 also includes a number of features that improve form creation and other enterprise functionality.
Adobe is known for selling expensive software and this new endeavor is no exception. Its still easy to spend several hundred dollars a seat for an enterprise Acrobat installation. But if youre smaller than an enterprise customer, not to worry: Adobe doesnt much care about you.
To be fair, giving Reader review and annotate capabilities for PDF files created with Acrobat 7 can arguably be considered a feature beneficial to all customers, not just the large ones. But if you need additional functionality, you will have to buy one of the full desktop versions or something called Acrobat Elements. This dumbed-down version of Acrobat costs about $28 a seat, provided you purchase 1,000 of them, which is the smallest quantity available.
Built to give creative professionals a platform-independent way to distribute documents created in other Adobe products, Acrobat itself was a bit of a slow start. Over time, however, Adobes perseverance paid off. Today just about every desktop and portable I run into seems to have a copy of Acrobat Reader.
While some business customers, in non-graphics fields, have bought the Acrobat authoring tools, many others have purchased third-party products from companies like ScanSoft and Global Graphics that take advantage of the open Acrobat PDF file specification. These allow documents to be easily swapped between Acrobat and Microsoft Words .Doc document format.
These lower-cost authoring products, which are often designed specifically to integrate with Microsoft Office, have increased Acrobats popularity without forcing Adobe to cut prices to serve a mass business market. While competitors PDF authoring tools can be had for less than $50, single copies of Acrobat Professional can fetch more than $400 at retail. While the Adobe product has significantly richer functionality, if all you need to do is create a .PDF the $50-and-under products work just fine.
Still, Adobe has an interesting, perhaps even compelling story for potential enterprise customers. Acrobat 7 has a significantly improved feature set over prior versions and the company is providing interesting server functionality. But Adobes pricing, coupled with the low market penetration of Acrobat authoring tools beyond their graphics industry stronghold, leave the company open to predation.
Enter the predator
Nothing I am about to tell you is known—by me, anyway—to be part of Microsofts product roadmap. But what I am outlining is sensible, good for both Microsoft and its customers, and only messes with Adobe almost by accident. It may also put Adobe in the position of playing the same sorts of tricks on Microsoft that Microsoft itself has been accused of playing on most every other software publisher in the past.
In recent years, Microsoft has tried, with a notable lack of success, to compete with Acrobat in the portable document and electronic book market. With a strong effort, Redmond only achieved the degree of market place traction one might witness if a semi-trailer were to head up a 45-degree slope—of solid ice.
Where Microsoft Fits In
Thats about how well Microsoft Reader did, though I suspect the technology will reappear, if it hasnt already, as part of the Microsoft Office Digital Rights Management (DRM) solution. But does Microsoft really need its own portable document standard? I dont think so.
My suggestion is that Microsoft adopt the open Adobe PDF format as its own for portable documents, document workflow and management, and forms automation. In adopting the Adobe spec, Microsoft simply would be accepting Acrobats status as the de facto standard for document portability.
The downside is that Microsoft may learn—and this has already been the subject of some grumbling in the third-party Acrobat community—that the PDF spec may not be as open as widely supposed.
After Adobe used Acrobat 7 to take advantage of “new” features already baked into prior versions of Reader, some outsiders cried “foul.” There has also been speculation there may be other hidden APIs as well. If this sounds like a complaint made many times in the past against Microsoft, thats exactly what it is.
However, given Microsofts ability to widely distribute PDF authoring tools essentially for free, Adobe would be wise to work with Redmond to assure compatibility. Microsoft, while capable of adding proprietary extensions of its own to a PDF format would presumably still desire compatibility with Adobe Reader on non-Windows platforms such as Macintosh and Linux. Sometimes it just makes sense to work together, and this is one of those times.
Rights Management Services (RMS) for documents are likely to find their way into the next release of Windows Server. Microsoft could create significant value simply by bolting RMS onto PDF tools and readers. Having both PDF and .DOC formats available would make it easier for Microsoft and its customers to separate documents archived or saved for distribution from those still “live” and subject to editing in Word or other Office apps.
Whether Microsoft will do this or not and the real impact it would have on Adobes enterprise plans is hard to judge. But Adobe is potentially headed into even more direct competition with Microsoft than it has been in the past, thanks to Microsofts limited interest in graphics and photo editing software.
Perhaps the two companies will fiercely (and stupidly, if you ask me) compete or maybe each can see it has something the other needs. Microsofts has apps and servers, and while Adobes the controls PDF format and technology. It might be best for each company to meet the other halfway.
But even if Microsoft doesnt react, 2005 will be an interesting year for Adobe Systems and perhaps the best year its Acrobat portable document technology has ever had.