First Look: Adobe's Acrobat.com Document Collaboration Service

Free public beta

Today Adobe launched the free public beta version of Acrobat.com, a Web-based supplement to its popular PDF document creation application. The new site offers an array of services to help businesses share and collaborate on documents. It also supports basic Web conferencing (including desktop sharing) and limited free conversion of documents to PDF format.

Acrobat.com works well with the beta version of Acrobat 9 (also announced today), which includes menus for sharing and collaborating on documents. The final version of Acrobat 9 is scheduled to ship in July, along with a new version of Adobe Reader.

But even if you don't use Adobe's desktop apps, you can get a lot of mileage from Acrobat.com if you work with others to create documents. I was able to test most of the beta Acrobat.com features last week, and found them to be an excellent mix of services for remote collaboration.

Acrobat.com has four principal components: a word processor called Buzzword; online file sharing via a feature called Share; a file converter that lets you convert up to five documents per month, free, to PDF format (offered within Share); and ConnectNow for personal Web conferencing. Adobe also makes APIs available for developers so they can create service mash-ups more easily.

Word Processing

Buzzword, a Flash-based word processor, was originally developed by Virtual Ubiquity, which Adobe acquired last September. The program is no Microsoft Word, but it covers the basics of document creation, including formatting, tables, and image importing. Its menus are easy to learn and its response time is quick.

Buzzword shines when you need to share or collaboratively create documents. You can decide whether to share a document with anyone who knows its URL or to restrict access to specific Acrobat.com users. User rights--which the person who submits the document to Acrobat.com assigns--range from Co-author (full document-editing privileges) to Reviewer (may add comments only) to Reader (may read only).

Each collaborator's comments appear in a different color. Buzzword saves the document automatically as you work. You may revert to an earlier version if you wish.

You can import and export Buzzword documents to other popular document formats including Word (.doc, .docx, .xml), .rtf, and .txt. You can also export to HTML or to PDF formats.

Document Sharing

Share assigns a unique URL to each document that you upload to your account (you get 5GB of storage space). To share a document, you enter the other person's e-mail address, along with an optional message, and specify whether the file may be viewed publicly or only by the recipient. The recipient will receive an e-mail with a link to the document.

You can embed public documents on a Web site or blog. Readers will see a small thumbnail; they can click this to see a PDF document or image file in a full-screen preview.

You can share files, including Office documents, in non-Adobe formats. But within the browser you can view only Adobe documents; to view all others, you must run a desktop application that supports the file format.

PDF Form Sharing and Conversion

Acrobat.com offers an interesting-sounding PDF form-sharing and tabulation service, too; but because it requires Acrobat 9 (which wasn't available for testing prior to the site's launch), I couldn't try it out. However, Adobe presented a demo of how the feature could be used to distribute a PDF form (for conference registration, say) by e-mail.

Recipients would be instructed to complete the form and send it to Acrobat.com, which would notify the original sender when completed forms arrived and would tabulate the results in a simple database. The sender could then view the results, broken down by categories such as which recipients had registered for which conference session.

This could be a valuable service for a small business that currently has to set up its own server to handle form tabulation.

Acrobat.com also lets you add comments to PDF documents. Since Acrobat 9 supports more file types--including video conversion to FLV--you can mark up and discuss video changes if you have the desktop app.

Web Conferencing

Adobe's ConnectNow Web conferencing service for individuals and small businesses supports up to three conference participants. Presumably this rather low user limit is intended as an inducement for businesses to upgrade to Adobe's Connect Pro.

ConnectNow lets you can share your computer desktop and collaborate on a document in real time. You may also take meeting notes in a notes pod, exchange text chat messages, or communicate via audio. Adobe provides teleconferencing numbers that use the Vapps voice conferencing service, but users must pay all toll charges. The conferencing service is similar to those offered by several competitors, including Cisco's WebEx.

Desktop Software Helpful but Not Required

Most of Acrobat.com's services don't require you to buy Adobe apps. You can sign up and use the site independently or with the free Adobe Reader 9 once it is released. You will need Acrobat 9 to take advantage of some of Acrobat.com's good capabilities, however, such as the ability to create forms and to create and embed video in PDFs for annotation.

After the beta test period ends (Adobe hasn't specified a date for this), the company will charge a fee (not yet determined) for a premium Acrobat.com service that will offer greater storage capacity and as-yet-unidentified additional capabilities. A basic version of the service will remain free.

I was particularly impressed by Acrobat.com's document collaboration capabilities, which are superior to those offered by other online services, such as Google Docs. If you often need to work with others to create documents, I recommend that you try Adobe's new service.

Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions via e-mail about using technology in your connected small or medium-size business . PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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