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Acrobat: The Killer App of Online Publishing

The advent of the World Wide Web was a landmark in the history of publishing, but the Web’s basic components don’t handle many of the subtleties of publishing very well. Many elements you may want to present online cannot be squeezed into the straightjacket of HTML, GIFs, and JPEGs. A Web "page" is not really equivalent to a printed page at all, and, at times, you may want a document on your site that actually prints the way it’s supposed to.

That’s the problem my colleagues and I faced when we designed our literary Web site in 1996. We wanted something better than pages you could only read on your computer monitor. We wanted publications you could actually print and take somewhere else, publications that looked and read as much as possible like actual books – fonts included.


Our solution? Adobe Acrobat, the Web’s Best Kept Secret. We’ll get to the details below, but here’s a teaser: Acrobat packs everything – text, fonts, and graphics – into a single file. This file can be viewed on almost any personal computer or workstation. And it prints with such fidelity to the original that even the IRS uses Acrobat to distribute tax forms from its Web site.


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The "Paperless" Office — You may have heard of Acrobat years ago, when Adobe marketed it as a kind of groupware product – a way to let many people work on the same information while tracking changes by user. The original idea was that you could create a document on one computer, then annotate or print it on another. The same document could be passed around a company and viewed on any machine, regardless of operating system.

Unlike word processor files, Acrobat documents can travel easily from platform to platform – from Macs to PCs to Unix and even OS/2 – with no translation, no compromises, no loss in quality. The fonts and graphics used to create the file travel with it – literally packed inside it. You don’t need the program that originally created the file in order to view or print it.

It is, as they say, an elegant hack. But Acrobat found few early takers, and the product languished while the world moved on. Part of Adobe’s problem was maturity: the program had to go through a revision or two to become elegant. Another problem was that with the first version, Adobe charged for every "seat" or user, even if the user was just viewing Acrobat documents. With the release of Acrobat 2, the Reader application became free, and was suddenly bundled on virtually every software CD-ROM.

This set the stage for that great migration to the Web – where the need to do what Acrobat does became apparent.

Outlines, Not Designs — The Web wasn’t intended for graphic designers. It was meant to present plain text in hierarchical fashion, like a formal outline, and to present clear links between text in different documents – a user-friendly version of Gopher, an earlier Internet technology. That’s why the original suite of HTML codes indicated not fonts and layout, but textual qualities: Header 1, Header 2, Paragraph, and so on. Images, if they were presented at all, were strictly flush left (and, if you used the original NCSA Mosaic on a slow connection, took forever to download and display even then).

Imagine explaining to your grandchildren the revolution that Netscape 1.0 created: Centered graphics! It hasn’t gotten much better. As visually sophisticated as some pages look these days, under the hood it’s a scene from the film Brazil, with nested tables, single-pixel transparent GIFs, and all manner of arcane tricks designed to present something that approximates what you can do in five minutes with a conventional page-layout program.

And it still doesn’t print very well.

So what does Acrobat offer that HTML lacks? One word: PostScript.

Describing a Page — Adobe’s PostScript page description language is what computers use to talk to most laser printers and all imagesetters (very high-resolution output devices used for professional output). It’s the heart of desktop and professional electronic publishing, and it set off a revolution when it was used in the first Apple LaserWriter and Aldus PageMaker 1.0 (long before Adobe bought Aldus).

The computer uses PostScript to describe a page in terms of all the elements that appear on it, including placement of graphics and spacing of fonts. Typically, whatever program you’re using downloads to the printer any TrueType and PostScript fonts needs to print a given document. So whenever you print to a PostScript printer, your computer creates a file and downloads it to the printer, and then the printer interprets it – the result being your printed copy.

Acrobat sits between the computer and the printer. Rather than sending a PostScript file (which is just a plain text file) to the printer, you save it on your hard drive. This file is interpreted by Acrobat, just like a printer would interpret the PostScript file, and instead of printed output, you wind up with a Portable Document Format (PDF) file which is virtually identical to what the printed page would look like.

A PDF file is self-contained and highly compact – compression is built in for all elements – and can travel conveniently across computer platforms and across the Web. If you have the Acrobat Reader, mentioned earlier, that’s all you need to view and print a PDF file. Look around your CD-ROMs – it’s likely that the Acrobat Reader shipped with some product you own, and Adobe includes it on every CD-ROM they produce. You can also download the latest version for free from the Adobe Web site, but it’s anywhere from 5 MB to 7 MB in size, depending on which platform you choose.

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The Acrobat PDF file can look as good as anything you can design in your layout program, because that’s where you create it. Think of it: PageMaker or QuarkXPress on the Web! That’s the promise that Acrobat offers and delivers. For myself and my designer colleagues, Acrobat is the killer app of online publishing.

Production Cycles — Let’s walk through a typical production cycle, which, in our case, is presenting a short story on our Web site. Many of the steps are the same as conventional publishing: We edit the piece, commission an illustration, scan it into Photoshop if necessary, and create title graphics and typography in FreeHand. From there, our work branches in two parallel directions: separate versions in HTML and Acrobat, one to be read online, the other to be downloaded from our site and printed.

The Acrobat version is designed in PageMaker. To provide the appearance of a book, we have a basic two-column horizontal layout, similar to the effect of photocopying an open spread (or, for that matter, holding a book open in your lap). We fuss over the typography – fonts, sizes and leading – the same as we would for conventional publishing. Finally, we import the cover illustration (TIFF or EPS – no GIFs to sweat over) and fuss some more until we’re satisfied.

We could, at this point, take the PageMaker file to a commercial printer. Instead, we turn it over to Acrobat.

Software Components — To create the PDF, we use Acrobat Distiller, which ships in a special version bundled with PageMaker or as one element of a stand-alone Acrobat software package. The Distiller program takes the PageMaker output (which is, you recall, just a regular PostScript file), interprets the PostScript, and turns the result into a freestanding Acrobat PDF file. We then upload the PDF to our Web site as we would any other file. Although we design on a Mac and the site runs on Unix, we name the Acrobat file according to PC conventions – eight plus three characters, with ".pdf" as the extension. That allows anyone to download the file without needing to change the name.

And that’s it.

Well, not quite. One drawback to Acrobat files is that they can grow quite large if you’re not careful. To address this, we also tweak Distiller’s settings; although Distiller generally runs fine in default mode. All those fonts and graphics must be squeezed in, as well as the text itself.

We try to limit our Acrobat files to about 300K, which is the most we can expect a typical reader with a modem to download at one time – that takes about two minutes with a 28.8 Kbps modem. This is roughly equivalent to one chapter (or fifty pages) in a novel, including illustrations; we actually present an entire novel in six Acrobat chapters this way.

If you’re not using PageMaker, you can buy the Acrobat stand-alone package. It includes several formerly separate programs, including Distiller, Exchange (a PDF editor and annotator), Capture (an optical character recognition system), and Catalog (an indexing utility). Its street price is less than $200. (Capture also comes in a separate, $600 version that supports scanners that have sheet-feeding attachments, like a photocopier, for handling large quantities of documents.)

Tighten Up — You can keep files small through a variety of options in Distiller. The font options alone can be combined in so many ways that, in an excellent little book called "PDF Printing and Publishing" (Micro Publishing Press, 1997), a two-page flowchart as complex as the NCAA playoff pairings shows how each combination of options results in different viewing issues for an end-user. You can include (or "embed") all your fonts in the Acrobat file, but that takes up quite a bit of space, since each style of each font (like Helvetica Oblique) requires 30K to 40K.

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If you embed all your fonts, however, the final PDF displays just as you originally intended. If you don’t include your fonts, then the PDF will display the same way only if the user viewing the document has those fonts installed on his or her system.

Finally, if you don’t embed fonts and the user doesn’t have them installed, a version of Adobe Type Manager that’s installed along with Acrobat Reader will substitute a generic typeface instead. So the type spacing and sizes are preserved, but the actual font looks quite different. For some purposes, this is okay, but since we’re designers, we really want users to see exactly what we’ve created.

You can get a bit of the best of both worlds by setting Distiller to include only a subset of a font. If you’re using a display typeface once for a 12-letter title, for example, subsetting the font can reduce the size of the font file included by as much as 95 percent.

You can also compress graphics. Distiller provides a lot of flexibility – so much that you should test different options before settling on one. You’ll also choose different options for different purposes, although Distiller doesn’t offer a way to save settings for each of your different output tasks.

Our cover illustration is usually an RGB TIFF file, created at a much higher resolution than needed for viewing or desktop printing, but required for professional high-resolution output. That TIFF file alone could double or triple the size of our Acrobat file. But rather than creating another, smaller version of the TIFF for our PDF file, we instead set Distiller to convert it automatically to 100-dpi medium-compression JPEG format in the Acrobat file. This offers sufficient resolution for viewing and printing for our purposes, and it keeps the size manageable.

Even EPS graphics should be checked for simplicity before handing your layout document over to Distiller. We encountered one large and layered EPS graphic that took up an extraordinary amount of space for its humble purpose. We imported it into Photoshop, saved it as a small TIFF, and let Distiller convert it into an even smaller JPEG for the Acrobat file.

Bear in mind that our approach is to create high-quality printable documents that can be distributed via the Web. Acrobat is perfect for this, but it offers other benefits you may want to explore – starting with the Reader itself.

Web Viewing — The Reader program displays and prints Acrobat files, but it can also display PDFs from within Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer using a browser plug-in that comes with the Acrobat Reader 3.0 package. Make sure your browser isn’t running, then copy the plug-in from Acrobat Reader’s Web Browser Plug-in folder into Navigator’s or Internet Explorer’s Plug-ins folder. The next time you run the browser and try to download a PDF, the Reader program will launch, but the PDF will display entirely inside your browser’s window.

The potential of viewing PDF files inside a Web browser might lead you to think that you could design an entire Web site using linked PDFs. Adobe recognized this potential early when it re-introduced Acrobat as an alternative to HTML a few years back, and it’s been developing some intriguing technology to make it happen.

Luckily, Adobe abandoned its efforts to supplant HTML itself after a few months of trying back in late 1995 and early 1996, and concentrated on making PDF a complement to HTML. The need for the Acrobat plug-in meant that PDF-only sites ran the risk of being dead-ends other than for highly particular projects or audiences that were guaranteed to have and use Acrobat.

[Editor’s note: If you’re curious about viewing PDF documents in a browser, NetBITS editor in chief Glenn Fleishman and managing editor Jeff Carlson used to write for Adobe’s now-defunct adobe.mag, an all-PDF electronic biweekly magazine. Adobe has left the Web site running. Each article is a separate Acrobat file, with a conventional HTML page (sometimes with an image map) serving as a table of contents.]


To create Web-ready PDFs, start again with your page-layout software, only this time design your pages to fit within a browser window. In recent versions of PageMaker and other Adobe products, you can create links within each page – just like ordinary hypertext, or like mapped graphics where clicking different areas takes you to different locations. You can also use Acrobat Exchange, part of the Acrobat software package, to insert hyperlinks after a PDF file is created.

If you set Distiller to create an "optimized" PDF file, your file will be set up to load efficiently for someone transferring it over the Internet. An optimized PDF stores the text for each page first, then the graphics, and finally the fonts. When you display the file in a browser, the text comes in almost immediately, so you can start reading right away. The larger elements, graphics and fonts, show up shortly thereafter. (This only works with Netscape Navigator, by the way; Internet Explorer supports the plug-in, but must download the entire PDF file before displaying the first page.)

All PDF, All the Time? Despite our enthusiasm for Acrobat, we’re not ready to develop an all-PDF Web site. HTML still has many uses, one of which is to provide Web pages to visitors who don’t have Acrobat Reader or the browser plug-in. Marvelous as it is, Acrobat Reader is still an additional program to install, and a multi-megabyte download from Adobe at that. The software is still relatively unfamiliar to the general public, despite Adobe’s estimate that 20 million people have either downloaded it or received it bundled with other software. I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to explain what Acrobat is, or what it can do.

To its credit, Adobe has been working hard to get Acrobat into general distribution – don’t forget those online IRS forms. Unlike other software technologies, Acrobat is likely to have a long shelf life given Adobe’s position as a leading desktop publishing software company. (Even Quark, maker of QuarkXPress, is trying to build PDF support into their product.)

But I’m still waiting to see the Acrobat disco dancers on television.

[Mike Lee is publisher of Intangible Publications and a freelance designer in Eugene, Oregon.]


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