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The PDF (Portable Document Format), Adobe's near-universal electronic distribution format, has undoubtedly come a good distance in the 11 years since its debut, But despite its inarguable position as the de facto standard for distributing documents on the Web, it has its share of critics who complain that it's not a particularly effective digital distribution method. Some complain that it's fine for printing out documents, but lousy for online reading. Others complain about its load time, particularly on Web sites. Although the PDF format will likely be with us for the foreseeable future, digital publishing continues to evolve, and there are a number of competing and complimentary technologies already on the market. The debate over whether online publishing should approximate print continues as well, with some competitors focused on creating a new paradigm for Web publishing, while others stress the need to maintain the integrity of the print layout.

Spencer Ewald, NXTbook's CEO, explains, "There is a reason the way the book is laid out. We are conditioned to rest at the page flip. People get frustrated when scrolling because it's not laid out in the same way they are used to seeing and reading. Print is a type of interface, and we wanted to translate that onto the Web and marry the power of print with the assets of the Internet -- the depth, the quickness, the ease, and the distribution method." - "Beyond PDF: Digital Delivery Develops," Ron Miller, EContentmag.com, Posted Aug 11, 2004, July/August 2004 Issue.

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.

Macromedia Checks In

Not to be left out of any content delivery picture, Macromedia introduced FlashPaper last year. The product provides a way to put a graphical representation of a document directly on a Web site without having to open up a reader. It doesn't offer the same printing functionality as PDF, but it does provide a fast way to display or preview a document on a Web page. In fact, Macromedia sees it as a compliment to PDF rather than as a competitor.

Erik Larson, director of product management at Macromedia, says that Flash and PDF work together. "FlashPaper will provide a preview to get a sense of the document. If they want to download it for printing, PDF is better," Larson says. Gilbane agrees that the two can work together in powerful ways to help users. He says, "The idea behind FlashPaper is to create a version of the paper like a graphic. It provides an easier way to incorporate the document inside a Web page without opening up a separate application."

Moving Traditional Publications on the Web

In the realm of traditional publishing, the requirements are a bit trickier than those for most enterprise content delivery needs. In some instances, small publishers still use PDF to distribute their publications. Others display or email HTML versions, but most publishers want to use the power of the Web, while preserving some of the look and feel of traditional media. This has resulted in a number of approaches from vendors such as Zinio and NewsStand, which use a reader to download and view publications, or NXTbook, which incorporates the look and feel of a traditional page-turning publication delivered via a Web browser.

Gilbane isn't convinced any of these approaches work. "I look at it on my screen and I keep thinking it should behave like a Web browser or even a PDF, but it doesn't - ”it has a lot of other things going on. I've got a decent size screen with pretty good resolution, but it's hard to read a two page spread. To me it's like working with a PDF with a large page size, but you have to move the whole document to read it," Gilbane says.

Spencer Ewald, NXTbook's CEO, points out that the print metaphor has developed the way it has for a reason, and he believes that it's important to preserve it even when you move to an online setting. "We wanted to look at it from a publisher's perspective," he says. "There is a reason the way the book is laid out. We are conditioned to rest at the page flip. People get frustrated when scrolling because it's not laid out in the same way they are used to seeing and reading. Print is a type of interface, and we wanted to translate that onto the Web and marry the power of print with the assets of the Internet - ”the depth, the quickness, the ease, and the distribution method."

Kit Webster, NewsStand's CEO, agrees with Ewald and says his company's research has reached similar findings. "Surveys show that newspapers and people have evolved together over the last couple of hundred years, and they have a format people are used to, including the advertisements," he says. "They can navigate it easily and Web sites are difficult to navigate sometimes and very often sites have to omit things."

Webster says that NewsStand employs a reader to provide more advanced functionality for his customers such as panning, zooming, and searching along with features such as a watch list. In addition, the reader provides a way to measure click-throughs and enforce digital rights management. For instance, NewsStand stops functioning if the user opens a screen capture program. (NewsStand introduced a browser-based version of the product with lower-level DRM in June, but continues to offer the reader version).

Ewald wanted to use Web standards with NXTbook and therefore went without DRM (his product does offer usage analytics). "We were always about open Web standards.," Ewald says. "We lost some jobs because of it. DRM is great for publishers, but as it currently functions, it upsets readers."

Webster believes DRM gives publishers a degree of comfort and is a major selling point for the reader-based version of his product. "Newspapers and magazines are interested in DRM and making sure their publications aren't republished on the Internet and doctored along the way," Webster says.

Gilbane agrees that DRM enforces copyrights but says that in its current form, it merely annoys end users. "DRM will have some role, but it's not there yet and I haven't seen any solution that makes it friendly enough for the reader," says Gilbane. "My first reaction when people started to implement digital rights stuff, the problem with all of them, is they frustrate the readers, so they give up."

Upgrading Enewsletter Publishing

Not every publication requires the look and feel of a print publication. The electronic newsletter (enewsletter) has been using a text or HTML email as the traditional delivery method for some time, but as email becomes increasingly crowded, and the use of spam filters more widespread, it is sometimes difficult to get the content to the reader via email.

Chris Pirillo, publisher of multiple newsletters through his Lockergnome Web site, says he is first and foremost a content provider. Once he clicks Send to distribute the email, it's really out of his hands. "My job is to send out content. It's not to try and figure out how to configure the reader's [email or spam-blocking software] or to explain to ISPs we shouldn't be blocked," Pirillo says.

He approaches this problem in two ways. First of all, he outsources email distribution to a service agency who is responsible for dealing with all problems related to delivery. Secondly, he offers RSS as an alternative delivery method. Pirillo says about 10-20 percent of his subscriptions are through RSS, but he thinks it's important to give readers the choice. "How do users want to receive information? Give them the option to choose," Pirillo says.

Gilbane thinks that RSS is only beginning to register with the public. "Most people don't even know what it is, and those that do often don't appreciate the potential, but I see a lot of potential. We have an RSS feed on our site and are getting a lot more traffic on our site. What I don't know is how many email subscribers are using the RSS feed." Gilbane says.

Future of Digital Publishing

NXTbook's Ewald thinks software delivery mechanisms will continue to evolve over the next five years, but that eventually, with the wider proliferation of broadband and the development of a flexible ereading device, we will then see a major shift. "I don't think you'll see tipping points until broadband is more widespread as are [more flexible] reading devices, whether that's going to be tablet PC, or something like epaper, a sheet of paper that looks like a plastic piece of paper and you can fold it up and it's a wireless devices," Ewald says.

Regardless of future developments, the PDF will be with us for some time to come, but that doesn't mean that publishers and enterprise users won't continue to look for alternative ways to present their content online. There are a wealth of choices out there and sorting through them can be daunting, but these choices provide better and more efficient ways to present content. It's up to the content producer to assess the many choices that are available and find the best avenue to get their content into the hands of readers.

- "Beyond PDF: Digital Delivery Develops," Ron Miller, EContentmag.com, Posted Aug 11, 2004, July/August 2004 Issue, http://www.econtentmag.com/?ArticleID=6869