There’s a lot of discussion about the ongoing spat between Microsoft and Adobe over whether Microsoft will be able to install PDF/Acrobat support in its next version of Office. This should be as straightforward as PDF support in OpenOffice — where you can choose to save (well, print, technically speaking) a file as an Acrobat PDF. But it’s not. Allowing a niche, free, office suite like OpenOffice to add this for free is one thing, but for the market giant Microsoft — who are preparing a PDF rival, XPS — to do it is another. So as things stand at the moment, Office users will be abe to have PDF support, but not out-of-the-box: They’ll have to install it as a download plug-in. Not too arduous, but as comments on the blog of Brian Jones, Microsoft’s Program Manager, suggest, a lot of folk won’t do that.
Everyone’s talking about this issue, blaming Microsoft, blaming Adobe, but no one seems to be asking a question I’ve been mulling for years: Why are Adobe Acrobat files so hard to use, and the Adobe programs to make and maniuplate them so darned user unfriendly? I’ve been using Acrobat reader and Acrobat for years, and each version I hope is going to be a little more intuitive and easier to understand. And yet every time I try to do something a little bit different or more complicated than simply saving a file or extracting a line of text I run into problems.
I’ve found no straightforward, wizard-type way to tweak a saved file to balance reduced file size with reduced quality of images. This means that I — and I’m sure lots of other folk, including a friend of mine who yesterday received a PDF file from a major international organisation that was 7 MB in size, had Chinese characters that appeared as gibberish on her screen — can’t easily use what should be the most powerful features in what should be a great program.
And don’t get me started on the naff way that the Adobe Reader includes a promo for the Yahoo! Toolbar — how low do you have to stoop? — and, next to it, a helpful search box. How many people have entered text in that box thinking it’s to search the active PDF document, only to find that it’s actually a Yahoo! search box?
Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that it looks remarkably similar to the Adobe “find” box that appears if you hit Control+f:
It’s telling that most of the best PDF tools are not actually Adobe’s at all, but simple PDF makers that bypass the whole Acrobat maker process. (My list of these programs is here, although it needs some updating. Here’s a free PDFCreator which will allow you to print to PDF from any Windows program.)
Sure, PDFs are great for the security measures they build in, and they have definitely changed the way people exchange and collaborate over documents. But usability has not improved. So if Microsoft or anyone can come up with a better format that’s easier to work with, I’m all for it.