By Stephen H. Wildstrom To most people who think about it at all, Adobe Acrobat is that free program that allows you to display highly formatted documents in a Web browser. And the portable document format (PDF) used by Acrobat allows very accurate printouts of complex documents. But the full version of Acrobat, the one you have to pay for, can be a powerful business tool for the distribution of documents, both within a company and to its customers.
The new Acrobat 5.0 for Windows or Macintosh ($220, $89 as an upgrade from earlier versions) adds an assortment of new features. Most give document creators greater control over how their works may be used or make it easier to post electronic documents to the Web.
Converting an electronic document to PDF format couldn't be simpler. In Microsoft Office applications, Acrobat installs menus that allow you to convert Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, or PowerPoint slides with a single click (this feature does not currently work in the forthcoming Office XP).
DISTILLING YOUR DOCUMENT. But it's not much harder to create PDF versions from applications that don't offer one-click conversion. Installing Acrobat creates a virtual printer called Acrobat Distiller that appears in your Windows Printers folder or in the Chooser on the Mac. Select Distiller as your printer, and "printing" the document creates a PDF file that you then save.
Acrobat uses encryption technology to give content creators a great deal of control over how their documents are used. You can lock a document so that only someone who has the key can see it. You can allow recipients to view but not print, or print but not make copies of the file.
Creators can also affix a digital signature to a file, which assures both its authenticity and serves as a check against any alteration of the content (if the content has been changed in any way since it was signed, the recipient will be unable to verify the signature). I don't know how well these protections would stand up to a determined and highly skilled assault, but they are certainly strong enough to resist any casual attacks.
COLLABORATIVE EFFORTS. Acrobat is especially useful in the preparation of documents for the Web. The HyperText Mark-up Language (HTML) language used to create Web pages gives creators very little control over typefaces, font sizes, and other facets of how a document will appear on-screen. It's very difficult to create complex documents because different browsers, or even different user settings on the same browser, can turn them into an unreadable mess. And often what looks good on the screen is ugly, or even illegible, when printed.
PDF guarantees that a document will retain all of its formatting and other characteristics when displayed on screen or, especially, when printed. You could accomplish the same thing by distributing Word files, but you then can't be certain that everyone has an application that will allow it to be viewed. Acrobat Reader, the free part, is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, several flavors of Unix, and even IBM's all-but-extinct OS/2.
In addition to some security enhancements, new features in version 5 make it easier for work groups to collaborate on documents by letting individuals add and manage comments. It also includes improved capability to generate online forms, which users can then fill out and file from a Web browser.
If your business involves the creation and distribution of documents, you probably ought to take a look at Acrobat. The familiar Reader barely scratches the surface of what this handy technology can do. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online