Let me start with a general observation. The more complex digital publishing technology becomes, the more difficult it is to identify the real issues that may affect the future of our business.
Microsoft Metro is an excellent case in point. Announced by Bill Gates in April, Metro is some sort of appendage to some part of the next Windows OS called Longhorn, which is eagerly expected 16 months or more from now. I say “or more,” as Longhorn has already faced major delays. No doubt Microsoft’s engineering process is far more rigorous and predictive than the rest of the industry’s, but when it comes to a project of Longhorn’s scope, forgive me if I don’t place bets on the delivery date.
Regardless of dates, “Metro” has now been loudly announced, by Bill Gates himself, in his keynote to kick off a Windows Hardware Engineering Conference. (Let’s just call it a coincidence that Adobe announced its acquisition of Macromedia a few weeks before. Let’s just ignore the fact that many in the media positioned this acquisition as Adobe’s move to stave off future aggression by Microsoft. Let’s just call it serendipity.)
The media nearly universally acclaimed the Metro announcement as “Microsoft Readying a PDF-Killer,” or words to that effect. With the media near unanimous in this pronouncement, are we allowed any space to consider that the meaning may be less dramatic? Or perhaps even more dramatic, but for completely different reasons?
I wanted to wait a little while for the dust to settle before looking at Metro close up. I think it’s now time.
Looking at Formats
PDF is a file format, its specifications well-established and widely available. Nonetheless, Adobe controls the PDF spec, and the nature of PDF is very supportive of Adobe’s broader imaging model. Metro is a proposed file format, not yet much in evidence, but also with a published specification. The most significant aspect of the Metro format is that it is “primarily (an) XML-based format for paginated documents.”
But we have to look beyond just file formats to understand Metro’s likely impact.
What is PDF, beyond a published file specification? I’m inclined to call it a software ecosystem. For one thing, PDF has a published SDK (software development kit). It has allowed numerous developers to extend the functionality of PDF in varied directions. Metro will no doubt one day have an SDK, but, in the meantime, PlanetPDF’s PDFStore lists 114 different products that extend the functionality of Acrobat, and that’s just a fraction of the companies registered with Adobe to develop Acrobat plug-ins and add-ins, whether to sell to a broad market or for company-specific functionality. Many have been on the market nearly as long as Adobe Acrobat itself.
Adobe offers a great deal of specific support information on the specialized functions of the PDF file format that make it so powerful today.
Because the PDF standard is open, many developers replicate at least some of Acrobat’s functionality. Scores of companies make software to create PDF files.
None of this is hurting Adobe; quite the opposite. In its last fiscal quarter, PDF-related sales accounted for nearly 40% of Adobe’s revenues, and jumped 42% from the year-earlier quarter.
Metro, PDF and the OS
I believe that traditional operating systems are becoming obsolete, certainly from the user perspective. Yes, Apple continues to add striking functionality to its Mac OS X, and Microsoft continue to flummox users with Windows, and there’s another OS, called Linux, gaining some ground on the competition. But I think the future of operating systems is invisibility. I don’t interact with the OS on my telephone or my television; why should I do so on my computer?
What Adobe has achieved with Creative Suite 2 is intriguing. I think of Creative Suite 2 as “an OS on top of the OS.” If you’re a designer working exclusively with Adobe software, you need never dig below the Adobe CS2 interface. CS2 is your OS! This, I think, has a profound impact on the future of operating systems. Apple may have built advanced PDF support into its OS; Microsoft may build advanced Metro support into Windows 2010. None of this will make much difference to the average user. Why not? Because of XML.
XML and PDF
One ill-informed journalist commented that PDF already supports XML, thereby negating the value of Metro’s all-XML file structure. This misses the point by a long shot. The early view of PDF vs. XML was a straightforward perspective: PDF concerns appearance; XML concerns structure. The two can co-exist happily. Adobe has realized that there’s more to the contest than this happy equilibrium. But its current public stance is that PDF can be represented as XML, rather than the opposite. Or, at most, XML structure can be embedded within a PDF file.
These are good first steps from Adobe, but the future direction of XML and PDF points to Adobe’s dilemma. While PDF is a publicly specified and publicly available format, that same public entrusts Adobe with its creation and processing of PDF files. Numerous third parties can now generate, edit, and otherwise process PDF files. But each new entrant only serves to reinforce the notion that you’d best get your PDF files from the authorized source.
What if we could specify PDF files completely within an XML syntax? What advantage would remain with Adobe? No doubt they’d find an imaging hint or two, but there would be very little left in the Adobe PDF advantage.
This is the ultimate end game with which Microsoft will challenge Adobe. The two companies are perhaps equally vulnerable. XML is a W3C standard that neither company can hope to significantly control. XML can tag everything from your birth date to complex vector graphics. Neither company can alter its power or determine the outcome of its success.
But by moving a robust document imaging format into the XML space, Microsoft is disarming Adobe with it strongest and most lucrative technology, while risking the proposition that there will be no gains for Redmond either.
We’ve got nearly two years for the contest to begin to play out, and many questions remain. It’s far too early to call Metro a PDF killer, and far too optimistic to state that PDF will be with us forever.