Beyond PDF: Digital Delivery Develops

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The PDF, Adobe's wildly popular electronic distribution format, has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in 1993. With more than a half billion Acrobat Readers worldwide, it has become the de facto standard for distributing documents on the Web. Its dual role of providing a way to preserve formatting and layout and making it easy to print documents has made it the format of choice. Yet it has its share of critics who complain that it's not the most effective digital distribution method. Among its most famous broadsides was Jakob Nielsen's June, 2001 Alert Box column in which he concluded that the PDF was great for printing out documents, but lousy for online reading. Others complain about Acrobat Reader's load time, especially on Web sites. In spite of these criticisms, the PDF has solidified its place as the leader in electronic document distribution.

Yet the story can't simply end there, can it? Surely technology must find a way for digital publishing to evolve, and, in fact, there are a number of competing and complimentary technologies on the market that push the digital delivery methodology well beyond the elementary PDF (Portable Document Format). Even Adobe has recognized that the PDF format has certain limitations and recently come out with a platform to use the PDF as a front end to distribute information throughout the enterprise using XML.

Other players are also making serious moves into PDF's territory. Macromedia, for one, introduced FlashPaper last year with the release of Contribute 2.0, and they have recently released a stand-alone version of this product, which provides a way to integrate documents directly into a Web page using Flash technology.

Meanwhile, traditional print publishers such as newspapers and magazines continue to search for the best way to distribute their publications online. Some have chosen PDF or HTML, but others have chosen "replica" digital distribution options such as Zinio, NewsStand, and NXTbook to distribute their publications online in a format that walks the line between print and the Internet. Not to be left out, newsletter publishers have moved to plain text and HTML email distribution. And as that avenue gets more and more jammed, they too are looking for alternatives such as RSS, an XML specification for content syndication, to provide a new avenue for distributing their content.

Still, it's not just traditional publishers who need to worry about electronic document distribution. It's an issue that reaches into the enterprise, and many of the players discussed here—not the least of which is Adobe itself—recognize that the enterprise user needs a better way to distribute data to various information repositories, a problem that enterprise content management vendors have understood for some time.

This article takes a broad look at digital publishing options that will allow traditional publishers and enterprise users alike to move beyond the PDF and take digital content delivery to the next level.

Adobe Advances the PDF
Frank Gilbane, publisher of the Gilbane Report, a publication that focuses on content trends, says that there has to be alternatives to PDF, but, ultimately, the PDF will continue to serve a useful purpose. "There are going to continue to be multiple digital publishing formats because there will be multiple requirements, but it's always been the case that there is a need for something like PDF because, for most enterprise applications, it's a bridge between print and digital."

Adobe has always understood this need but has also recognized the limitations of the PDF in its current incarnation. In June, the company released a new enterprise-oriented approach to extend the PDF that they are calling the Adobe Intelligent Document Platform. It places PDF on a Java-based platform and provides a way to build in business logic and XML hooks into a PDF document, making it possible to move information from a PDF into a workflow or to distribute data to databases throughout the enterprise.

Sydney Sloan, group manager for product marketing at Adobe, says the original PDF was excellent for one-way communication, but the new document platform provides a way to expand upon that. "PDF is a widely adopted format for presenting information. If you go to any Web site you will find a PDF to present content. We are taking the goodness in terms of presentation and adding onto that with business logic and XML support," Sloan says.

In addition, the new Acrobat platform allows users to build functionality into the free Reader that was previously only available in the full version of Acrobat. For instance, a team working on a document could build in collaboration features to allow document sharing and editing. What's more, users can build in restrictions that could, for example, put time controls on the document, so the viewer could only view it for five days, after which they could no longer open the document. This form of digital rights management (DRM) could appeal to all security-conscious customers as it gives the content provider much greater control over the PDF than was ever possible in the past.

Sloan stresses common content management themes when she says Adobe's new approach provides a way for enterprises to leverage their existing assets and automate content flow throughout the enterprise. "What's happening is that everyone is invested in core application systems and are now looking for ways to leverage existing assets across extended enterprise, while trying to reduce the number of manual and highly inefficient processes that compromised their effectiveness."

Adobe is not alone in its approach. Verity, best known for enterprise search products, purchased document capture software vendor Cardiff last year. Its Liquid Office product provides a way to connect data in online forms and documents to back end databases. Bill Galusha, senior product manager at Verity, says the product helps capture information then move the data to different repositories, much like Adobe's approach. 

 "Liquid Office enables organizations to put intelligent forms online and take the data and place it in back-end business systems in real time and move the form through a work flow. It's about capturing data and information and being able to process it for different audiences on the back side," Galusha says.

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