Adobe Acrobat 6.0
If it ain't broke, don't fix it—unless you're working on the latest version of Acrobat
Acrobat 6.0
Windows NT 4.0 SP6/2000 SP2/XP, Macintosh OSX 10.2.2
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That's the mantra spoken by many people who critically examine software for a living, including yours truly. And if you'd asked me a few months ago what was broken in Adobe Acrobat, I'd have stared into space with a puzzled expression and come back with some weak answer like, "...the inscrutable logo?"

I'm not suggesting that Acrobat 5 was perfect—just that I considered its flaws minor. It certainly wasn't broken, and I wondered at the need for a sixth version. What could Adobe do that would justify a while new point release? So I removed the shrinkwrap and tried it out, wearing my writer, editor and technical writer hats. A week later, I realized that I was hooked, but bad. I don't remember how I felt when I first discovered chocolate-chip cookies, but I'm pretty sure it was something like this.

(I realize that comparing document-creation tools to the manna that is chocolate seems a little extreme. But for someone who spends a lot of time working with documents, anything that helps streamline what can sometimes be a tedious and frustrating task—i.e., circulating your works of genius among others—is extremely important.)

First, a little history. When I first used Adobe Acrobat to create documents back in 1996 with version 3.0, there was no one program called Acrobat in the package. As a technical writer and magazine editor, the three components that concerned me most were PDFWriter, Distiller, and Acrobat Exchange. PDFWriter was a quick-and-dirty PDF creator masquerading as a printer driver; Distiller provided many more parameters for fine-tuning, and could be used as a printer driver or batch processor of PostScript files. Acrobat Exchange was a PDF editor that looked like the free Acrobat Reader (now called Adobe Reader), but had functions for editing text, inserting other PDF files, deleting and rearranging pages, and adding things like links, comments, bookmarks, and so on. By the time Acrobat 5.0 appeared around five years later, that breakdown remained largely the same, though Acrobat Exchange dropped the "Exchange" part of its name. (This had the side effect of making things a little confusing, as Acrobat became the name of the entire package and a single application within it.)

Distiller remains largely the same in Acrobat 6.0, but for a more streamlined interface; PDFWriter has been renamed Adobe PDF Converter and given a similar facelift. But the application formerly known as Exchange has undergone the most dramatic transformation: rather than being Reader with a plethora of editing functions bolted on, Acrobat 6.0 has been recast as sort of a go-to application for both creating and managing PDFs.

They get it almost right. Acrobat's new look evokes Microsoft Word, with a multitude of toolbars that you can toggle on or off, and something that looks like a task pane on the right. (It's not; although it points you to common tasks like creating, reviewing, and securing PDFs, it's actually online help.) The net result is a subtle reinforcement of the concept of PDF being part of the document creation and management process, rather than just an end result.

Because Adobe is pushing for PDF as a standard for business workflow (part of their "ePaper strategy"), many of the changes to Acrobat relate in some way to Microsoft Office. I mentioned before that the Acrobat application is now used for creating PDFs; that largely applies to Office documents. By clicking Create PDF in the File menu and choosing From File, you can open any Office document (including Project and Visio) in Acrobat directly. Tellingly, the keyboard shortcut for this function is Ctrl+N, which usually stands for New Document. There is something a little odd here, though; the only files that can be converted using this method are graphics (TIFF, GIF, JPEG, etc.), the aforementioned Office files, and AutoCAD files. What about Adobe's own products, like Illustrator, InDesign, or even Photoshop? It's true that they have their own Acrobat export functions, but that's not the point; Adobe have clearly designed Acrobat 6.0 for working with PDFs from a single interface, so excluding their own file formats seems a little strange.

Another sign of the Office influence is in the reviewing and commenting functions. Previously, Acrobat had a commenting function that essentially provided onscreen sticky notes and the ability to add or remove text. The current incarnation brings things more into line with the Word method of document collaboration, with a toolbar for moving back and forth between comments, the ability to accept or reject comments, and a Text Edit tool that almost but not quite mimics Word's Track Changes feature by striking out unwanted text and indicating where you would like text to be inserted.

There are other conveniences outside of the Acrobat application itself. Buttons for creating PDFs are now added to Internet Explorer and Outlook for one-click PDF creation, similar to the buttons that Acrobat 5 added to only Word and Excel. If you're not using one of these programs, you're not completely out of luck—you can right-click just about any kind of document file in Explorer to convert it, with the option to e-mail it as soon as it's ready.

There is a new wrinkle in all of this. Until now, Acrobat has always come in one flavour. Now it's available in three: Elements, Standard, and Professional. Acrobat Standard has all the functions I've mentioned, plus a few others I don't have room to squeeze in. (Okay, just one more: it's now much easier to select a bunch of disparate documents and have them combined into one PDF in the Acrobat application.) As the name implies, Acrobat Professional has even more, mostly of interest to power users concerned with advanced form creation, digital signatures and certificates, print production, and design work. The one-click PDF creation buttons are also available in Visio, Project, and AutoCAD. Acrobat Elements is far simpler, pretty much concerning itself with one-click PDF creation from Office. However, it's available only through volume licenses of at least 1,000 seats.

In and of itself, having different levels of Acrobat available at different prices is a good idea. Many of the people I know who use Acrobat have little use for the functions now found in Acrobat Professional, so it makes sense that they'd pay less for fewer features. What I do object to is that some features which were in previous editions of Acrobat (notably, form creation) are now absent from Acrobat Standard—and yet its price is slightly higher than Acrobat 5.0, which means you pay more to get less. That's hardly enticing, which is a shame; it's the kind of thing that will make some people think twice about finding out what other unbroken things Adobe has fixed.

Originally appeared in The Computer Paper (August 2003)
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