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Adobe pushes Acrobat into online office space against Microsoft, Google

Vendor launches beta of hosted collaboration service; Acrobat 9 update also on tap

By Eric Lai
June 2, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat software, long popular as a way to share, print and archive documents, is getting a Web 2.0 makeover, as the graphics software maker prepares to challenge Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. in the online office arena.

On Monday, Adobe is launching a public beta of an upcoming hosted collaboration service called Acrobat.com. Components include a Web-based word processor named Buzzword, which Adobe acquired last fall; the company claims that it produces more-polished-looking documents than other online word processors, such as Google Docs.

Also part of the Acrobat.com service are ConnectNow, a lower-end version of the Acrobat Connect Web conferencing service that Adobe debuted along with Acrobat 8 two years ago, and a 5GB online file repository from which users can share documents with other Buzzword users while maintaining some degree of access control.

In addition, Adobe officials said last week that the upcoming Version 9 of Acrobat will enable users to embed Flash videos and applications into PDF files and then view or access them from Adobe Reader 9. Due in July, the Acrobat 9 software will also let users create what Adobe calls PDF Portfolios combining multiple files stored in any format into a single, compressed PDF file, according to Kevin Lynch, vice president of Acrobat product management and marketing.

The portfolios will be able to incorporate Word documents, images, and audio and video clips, including those created for Silverlight, Microsoft's would-be Flash killer, said Lynch (who is no relation to Adobe's identically named chief technology officer). He added that users will be able to launch any of the files stored in a PDF Portfolio via Adobe Reader 9, and preview most of them as well.

Adobe hopes that the PDF Portfolio feature will catch on as a way to tidy up things such as sales presentations, which often are sent via e-mail in the form of multiple file attachments. Using the portfolio approach, such presentations could be "put on the same page, literally and figuratively," Lynch said.

Enabling PDFs to become .zip-like file containers is "nice in certain work situations," said Guy Creese, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah. "But it sort of begs the question: Is helping people continue to send stuff around by e-mail the best way to do things when you can use wikis or SharePoint and do it better? I'm not convinced this will have a great uptake in the market."

Acrobat 9 will come in various versions priced from $299 to $699, with upgrades running between $99 and $229. Adobe Reader will continue to be free, and Lynch said that in response to complaints about that product's slow loading times, Version 9 has been rewritten to run only necessary plug-ins. As a result, it should perform two to three times faster than Adobe Reader 8, he added.

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Adobe has yet to announce pricing for the Acrobat.com collaboration service, which will be sold on a subscription basis. Lynch said that the company hopes to woo subscribers by combining the Web-style collaboration capabilities of a Google Docs with the fine-grained document layout and presentation capabilities of Microsoft Word.

"In a corporate environment, what your work looks like actually reflects on you, too," Lynch said. Indeed, he pointed to research done by Adobe showing that a significant number of users who create documents in Google Docs are moving them over to Word to tweak the fonts and final page layouts. Using Buzzword and the rest of Acrobat.com's features will give users the best of both worlds and save them time in the process, Lynch claimed.

But Creese thinks that Adobe faces an "uphill" battle against Google and the raft of Office 2.0 start-ups, not to mention Microsoft, which is hoping to defend its Office franchise by adding a hosted collaboration service of its own called Office Live Workspace.

"You might save a few steps, but I'm a big believer that something's got to be 10 times better to get people to switch," Creese said. "I don't see a groundswell of people switching over [to Acrobat.com]."

Adobe plans to create an offline version of Buzzword running on top of its Adobe Integrated Runtime technology, though Erik Larson, the company's director of product management and marketing for Acrobat.com, said that there is no timetable for doing so.

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