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A New View for Documents

Browser-based technologies aim to make it easier to view documents online.

A new tool for embedding documents on Web pages is cropping up on sites as diverse as the storage service Drop.io; LabMeeting, a social network for scientists; and the Obama campaign’s official blog. Launched earlier this year, the format, called iPaper, is technology from Scribd, a company that hopes to become the sort of clearinghouse for documents that YouTube is for videos. With iPaper, the company offers a browser-based system for viewing documents that retains their original formatting and can be employed by the 98 percent of Internet users who have installed Adobe Flash.

Web words: Documents can be embedded in Web pages using Scribd’s iPaper, which allows users to quickly navigate its pages, search, and copy and paste.

Although most Web pages are documents, they often don’t display consistently from one browser to another, and it can be awkward to navigate through a large document if it’s displayed as a series of connected pages on the Web. Alternatively, when individuals want to share documents with each other, they can have compatibility problems. For example, the new .docx format created by Microsoft’s Office 2007 can’t be accessed by many other programs, including earlier versions of Office. One traditional method to solve both of these problems has been Adobe PDFs, which preserve formatting and can be opened by most computer users.

However, Jared Friedman, chief technology officer of Scribd, sees a need for a solution to the problem that’s built specifically for use through the browser. He says that browser-based versions have been built for most essential desktop programs. “In some sense, Adobe Acrobat is among the last programs to migrate online in a Web-based version,” Friedman says.

Web-based software is typically stripped of some of the specialized features available in desktop versions but has added social features. IPaper is no exception. Users can convert documents, including PDFs, Word documents, and rich text files, into iPaper by uploading them to the Scribd website or to a website that supports Scribd’s system. Readers can navigate documents by scrolling or flipping to a tile view, search them, and copy and paste. They can also share them, embed them on other sites, and, if the publisher chooses to allow it, download them in their original format to view offline.

FlashPaper, an earlier technology from Macromedia, inspired Scribd and iPaper, according to CEO and cofounder Trip Adler. Since Adobe didn’t continue to support the product after it acquired Macromedia, Scribd decided to build its own version from scratch. The iPaper technology is built using Adobe Flash, and it streams documents to a Web page. This allows a reader to jump smoothly to page 500 of a document, for example, even if the rest of the document is still loading. Although Flash has recently become easier for search engines to index, Friedman says that streaming documents can still be a problem. Scribd supplements iPaper documents with a searchable format that crawlers can read.

Pages and pages: The iPaper viewer supports several ways of navigating a document, including scrolling, a tile-based view (above), and book mode, which shows pages two at a time.

Adler says that Scribd is still experimenting with business models, although the company has seen its technology adopted fairly widely. Storage companies such as Drop.io and Box use iPaper to allow their customers to view the items they have in storage without having to download them. Adler says that the Scribd site currently gets 21 million visitors a month. He notes that the company may make money through ads embedded in documents (a feature that’s already available) or through buying and selling documents.

But Scribd may have more to worry about from Adobe than it thinks it does. Al Hilwa, program director for IDC’s application development software research, says that Adobe has been working to fuse documents with Web presentation. He adds that the company has begun incorporating Flash into PDFs and making its various document technologies available through Acrobat.com.

Indeed, Adobe says that FlashPaper is not abandoned technology. Erik Larson, director of product management and marketing for Acrobat.com and the former product manager for FlashPaper at Macromedia, says, “FlashPaper as a product is no longer being developed, but FlashPaper as a concept is alive and well.” He adds, “FlashPaper has become a set of Web services on a set of servers in the cloud.”

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