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    Juggling business features with Adobe’s Acrobat 8

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver 

    High Tech Office column; 

    January 16 22, 2007; issue 899

    While it’s been seemingly eons between new versions of Microsoft Windows and Office, some software companies have been on a much faster track. Graphics and publishing powerhouse Adobe, for instance, has been regularly churning out new and improved versions of its product line.

    Among Adobe’s recent updates is Acrobat 8, with versions for Windows and Mac. Acrobat coverts documents into PDF files viewable anywhere while retaining the original design. But if all you need is to convert documents to PDF, Acrobat is unnecessary: that capability is built into the Mac operating system and can be added with any of a range of free or inexpensive Windows add-ons.

    The challenge for Adobe to justify pricing of $300 for Acrobat’s standard edition and $450 for the professional version is to provide compelling added capabilities. The new version 8 starts off with a cleaner, easier to use interface than earlier versions, beginning with a “Getting Started” wizard that offers users a choice of common tasks.

    As with earlier versions, installing the software adds “Create PDF” buttons to Microsoft Office 2000 through 2003 (though not to Microsoft’s new Office 2007 version).

    Also new is integration with Adobe Connect, an online service offering virtual meeting rooms, a re-branding of the former Macromedia Breeze service. Adobe Connect allows users to collaborate online with a shared workspace without needing specialized software other than a web browser and the seemingly ubiquitous Flash Player. (Adobe Connect is available at an additional cost of US$40 per month or US$400 per year per online meeting room and does not require the purchase of Acrobat software.)

    For years I’ve been frustrated with PDF forms. Too often I’ve received digital forms only to have to print them out, fill them in by hand, then fax them back or scan them to return them as e-mail attachments.

    Forms created with Acrobat 8 can be filled out digitally, even by users who don’t own a copy of Acrobat, as long as they’ve downloaded the latest version of the free Acrobat Reader. This not only benefits the person filling out the form, it also allows the sender to automate the process of collating form responses. The professional version of Acrobat 8 simplifies digital form creation, detecting form fields in a document and converting them into live data input fields.

    A new “Combine Files” wizard makes it possible to make a single PDF package combining multiple documents of a variety of types. You can bundle a Word document with an Excel spreadsheet with Autocad plans, for instance. You can even choose to include only selected word processor pages or worksheets rather than entire files.The new Acrobat does a better job of blacking out text (and respecting text that has been blacked out in Word), making it the software of choice for would-be censors. And new secure and sign options make it easier to add encryption and digital signatures to protect your work.

    Even Adobe recognizes that not everyone requires Acrobat’s high-end features. The company markets a low-end Acrobat Elements to institutions buying at least 100 licences. (Acrobat Elements has not yet been updated to version 8.)

    Individuals and small businesses with basic needs to convert existing documents to PDF format are perhaps best served by any of the many free or low-cost PDF-creation programs available. (I like the free CutePDF, but there are lots of other alternatives.)

    Corel WordPerfect, Sun StarOffice, and the free office suites can all export word processor, spreadsheet or presentation documents directly to PDF, and Microsoft has promised a free downloadable PDF add-on for its Office 2007 version.

    But Acrobat 8’s improved form-filling, document combining, security and ease-of-use features make it a valuable upgrade for business users whose electronic document needs go beyond the basics.

    And everyone should download a copy of Adobe Reader 8; it not only meshes with Acrobat’s improved digital forms capabilities, it’s also faster and easier to use than previous versions. And still free.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan