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Acrobat Gets Multimedia Makeover

Adobe adds Flash, video, and Web services to its venerable Acrobat software.

Adobe is reinventing its venerable Acrobat software for the multimedia-heavy Web 2.0 age.

Targeted primarily at business users, Acrobat’s familiar PDF format has long allowed Net users to create and distribute forms, documents, and other publications that don’t translate well into ordinary Web pages.

Acrobat 9.0, which is slated for public release in July, will offer far more, allowing users to distribute slickly formatted presentation packages, complete with Flash-based video and animation. A related set of online collaboration tools is aimed at giving Adobe a foothold in the growing market for hosted Web applications.

“One of the long-standing virtues of PDF was the ability to have a reliable presentation regardless of the platform,” says Marion Melani, group marketing manager for Adobe’s Acrobat team. “We’re taking that history and extending it to include new mediums.”

A 15-year-old product, Acrobat’s transformation reflects the growing importance of multimedia, for businesses as well as for YouTube-savvy consumers. But it is also a nod to the burgeoning use of online document-sharing tools–a critical activity as work groups are spread increasingly across home offices and locations around the globe.

Acrobat’s strength has always been in allowing documents that need precise formatting–whether tax forms or artful magazine layouts–to be displayed, distributed, and printed as intended, rather than risking distortion in a Web browser. The last version also added support for computer-aided design (CAD) features, opening the format to wider use by product manufacturers.

This new version, the first to include support for Flash, steps beyond this document model. It offers users the ability to create “portfolios” of multiple files that can include video, audio, Web pages, manipulable 3-D objects, and even Flash-based applications in a single compressed package, all viewable inside the new Acrobat Reader software.

With a simple interface, reminiscent of the way that Apple’s iTunes displays album covers, portfolios will allow recipients to flip through each component, in an order determined by the author.

Adobe says that it expects the video and Flash-based features to resonate quickly with professionals who make complicated presentations, such as sales and marketing representatives, and even architects and attorneys creating multimedia legal briefs. Analysts note that video and Flash animations could also be helpful for demonstrating procedures in scientific journal articles, technical documentation, and financial reports.

“We’re seeing video used everywhere, even in context of technical documents or product brochures, as a way of telling a story,” says IDC analyst Melissa Webster. “These portfolios are a compelling way to integrate multiple files.”

Agile Acrobat: An early look at an Acrobat PDF Portfolio, in which each element of the carousel represents a different multimedia component.

The new Acrobat.com site will allow users to store, share, and work together on these multimedia-heavy portfolios, without having to swap them by e-mail. But Adobe hopes that people will also use the service for broader document-collaboration efforts.

The site offers a minimally featured word processor called Buzzword, acquired when the company bought startup Virtual Ubiquity last year. Separate functions offer Web audio and video conferencing, including the ability to let participants remotely view activity on the main user’s desktop. Users can store and share up to five gigabytes of files, allowing them to work on projects together.

Other companies have beat Adobe to these hosted collaboration services, with services such as Google Docs, Microsoft’s recently unveiled Live Mesh, and a myriad of smaller offerings. But Adobe is betting that the simple, easy-to-use design of its new service, and the near ubiquity of its Acrobat software, will give it a leg up.

“This is never going to be a direct competitor to Microsoft Office, because it just doesn’t have the productivity value,” says Forrester Research analyst Sheri McLeish. “But it gets their foot in the door and is an opportunity to reach more users, who will be impressed by what Adobe has done.”

Acrobat 9.0 will be available in several versions, costing $299 for the standard edition, $499 for Acrobat Pro, and $699 for the full-featured Pro Extended version. The beta version of Acrobat.com, accessible now, is free.

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