I’m Adobe, and I’ll Be Your Server


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What is the oldest browser running under UNIX, Windows, Mac, and various handhelds? It's bit of a trick question, but if you understand "browser" in a broader context than "Web browser," then Adobe Acrobat, essentially a unique browser, wins hands down with more than 500 million installations. No Web browser runs on so many platforms with so many installations. Incidentally, the Flash player, another unique product, has more than 500 million installations too (more about that later). Originally Acrobat's value proposition was simple: create a visually faithful, electronic rendition of what you would see if you printed an original. Since large groups of computer users ran on different machines, using different applications, Acrobat provided a great way to exchange electronic "printouts," which were essentially static, client-side files.

From the start, Adobe fine-tuned Acrobat with releases every 18 months or so. Most releases offered stunning new features, often with a modified interface, and an increasingly heavier client footprint that took correspondingly larger amounts of storage and time to load. Some versions seemed perfunctory; others offered significant new capabilities. Acrobat 7 falls into the latter camp. After letting the new 7.0 release settle down with the inevitable service upgrade, what is really new about Acrobat 7.01? More important, given Adobe's acquisition of Macromedia, is it time to fundamentally reconsider your use of Adobe and Acrobat?

This time around, the new list of features has taken on proportions that prompted Adobe to clump them into categories to help customize use. By some counts there are now more than a dozen ways to navigate, more than 20 toolbars, and nearly 30 ways to specify the way you want to use Acrobat, called preference categories (with even more submenu choices). The list of features is too big to describe—ranging from better integration with Microsoft applications to an organizer feature and additional metadata. Adobe has enhanced Acrobat security too, via its policy server. Without a doubt, the largest new feature really is an additonal application: Adobe Designer—previously a separate forms design product—which is now bundled with Acrobat Professional. Yet simply commenting on the latest release in terms of new features no longer seems meaningful.

I have been so jaded with software marketing buzzwords that I need to see them over and over before I begin to take notice. That is the case with Adobe's "Intelligent Document Platform," its credible strategy to do for documents what Web sites have done: move from static to interactive information integrated with business data and processes inside and outside the firewall. The platform elements include a universal client (Adobe Reader, within a browser or by itself), intelligent documents that preserve the best of paper powered by XML standards, and various server-based document services. Chief among these are forms data management, control and security, and document generation. Like benevolent Trojan horses, Adobe has given away Adobe Reader and included the forms designer with Adobe Professional. Taking full advantage of these requires an investment in Adobe's server products or other similar ones. Vendors like Liquid Machines and Authentica provide robust enterprise rights management and support Acrobat 7. Others like Verity provide searching and server-based forms. Now, however, Adobe has credible products in both categories, and nobody—not even Microsoft—has a real contender to Acrobat's Portable Document Format.

I think of documents as content ranging from free-form (unstructured) office documents to structured forms and robustly structured XML. Microsoft owns the left portion of the spectrum and provides basic XML support in Office 2003 and XML forms with InfoPath. Adobe's comfort zone has always been with more technical users and rich presentation. Its genius in combining rich presentation with XML—its own forms specification called XML Forms Architecture—gives it clout with IT and assurance to business people interested in the middle of the spectrum.

Macromedia's appeal has always been to technical Web developers. Assume for the moment that Adobe and Macromedia can sort out the overlap between GoLive and Dreamweaver, or Photoshop and Fireworks. The combined appeal to more technical users may provide added appeal to the new Adobe servers solutions. The biggest risk for Adobe, especially now that it has increased those solutions with its acquisition of Macromedia, is familiarity. Other vendors have more established server track records, yet the new Adobe-Macromedia team's server stories are significant. Content is no longer static. One billion readers and players is a very large installed base of votes for the new Adobe-Macromedia team, which goes a long way in solving that familiarity problem. Let's hope this familiarity breeds content.