Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Observations: Hot Fun in the Summertime

by Jim Lyons

The Hard Copy Observer, August 2006

This month, Jim Lyons, a 20-year veteran of the printing and imaging industry, returns to the topic of document formats. He takes a second look at what is happening with XPS and reflects on what recent litigation between Adobe and Microsoft tells us about how these two industry giants see the future of document workflows.

In the United States, the hot months of July and August bring the annual tradition of taking some time off from the daily grind—kicking back and reading a few trashy novels while relaxing at the beach, in the mountains, or around the pool. This summer, I have been doing my best to conform to that tradition, but rather than reading pulp fiction, I have found similar enjoyment in reflecting back on the thrilling “file-format wars” of the past few years that lead right up to the present and that promise to spice up the future of our industry.

In my April 2006 column titled “Microsoft’s XPS—After All These Years, More Mumbo Jumbo?” I looked into the current industry dust storm surrounding Microsoft’s XPS document-format standard—promised as part of its new Vista Windows operating system and Office 2007 productivity suite—and its potential threat to topple the present incumbent standard, Adobe’s PDF. The title of the column referred to my recollections of some of the messy battles between Microsoft and Adobe during the late 1980s and these battles’ parallels to those of today.

The early fights between Adobe and Microsoft (and its seemingly unlikely coconspirator Apple Computer) centered on font formats (Adobe versus TrueType) and page-description languages (PDLs) (PostScript versus TrueImage). The latest battle centers on whether Microsoft has its sights set on PDF and Adobe Acrobat (née Carousel—there’s one for you fellow old-timers), which actually evolved slightly after the peak of the PDL wars. A year ago, when XPS was named Metro, The Hard Copy Observer published an excellent two-part article on the emerging new standard, directly addressing the PDF-killer aspect (Observer, 7/05 and 8/05). The threat has been discussed ever since, with most experts coming down in the middle. One the one hand, XPS will be an important step forward for Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office software suite, as it addresses important customer needs. At the same time, PDF is entrenched and also, to its credit, does a pretty good job of addressing a wide range of customer needs itself. So in other words, everyone wins, right? (Conspiracy theorists, of course, will say that Microsoft always soft-sells its real interests in a similar way, with world domination, or in this case, dominating the world’s document formatting, being its ultimate goal.)

Little did I know back in April that the 2006 battles had only just begun! In early June, the Wall Street Journal and other news organizations reported that Adobe had filed suit against Microsoft in Europe, seeking to block some of Microsoft’s actions after secret behind-the-scenes negotiations had broken down. Based on the history between these two firms, none of this should come as a surprise, but like all good tales, there’s a twist. The legal action, it was reported, was filed to block the new Microsoft software’s inclusion not of XPS but of PDF capabilities! Yes, indeed, the ability to read and write PDF files directly from the new version of Microsoft Office seems to be the subject of the dispute. PDF-translation features have been noticeably absent from Microsoft Office until now (but are available through third-party add-ins), although they are commonly included as part of distant-also-ran office applications such as the WordPerfect suite. Adobe, in what I maintain is a case of displacement behavior, is seeking to block a very customer-friendly and PDF-supporting move, most likely because of the firm’s anxiety about Microsoft’s PDF-alternative, XPS.

Well, all that was early June, and since then I’ve been carefully watching the news wires. While there have been minor Vista and Office announcements, speculation about further relatively small schedule slippages, and European Union actions against Microsoft for other, older infractions, nothing more has come out about the PDF-related legal actions. So maybe the Adobe/Microsoft secret negotiations have reconvened? Or maybe, just maybe, the respective Adobe and Microsoft executives are taking the summer off reading trashy books at the beach?

Clarification on PDF Pervasiveness

One other detail in my April column has stirred some reader interest. In making the case for the ongoing solid position of PDF, I quoted some numbers that I had been provided to show the size of the massive PDF beachhead. Or at least what I thought was massive! It turns out that when I referred to “20 million individual PDF documents” available on the Internet, that figure was a four-year-old, government-documents-only number. The more current correct number for all PDF documents is 613 million! And this number includes only PDF documents on the public Internet, not those behind corporate firewalls, or what we used to call the “intranet.”

One of the primary wisdoms of my business career is the importance of learning magnitudes—that is, the general, if not exact, sizes of things such as markets. What is a large installed base? When is a market’s annual unit shipments sufficient to make a company take notice?

This is just a long-winded setup for me to apologize for passing along the 20 million number in April. I should have known better. If I had just stopped to think about it, there are probably at least 20 million PDF files that have been created just for rebate forms, and, speaking of rebate forms, next month’s column will explore that topic.


Jim Lyons said...

Links mentioned in the column:




Anonymous said...

While I have not studied this format war with the same keen eye as other observers, why should this be a surprise. With regards to market size and scale, one can never under estimate the importance of this fact, yet historically this has never phased the Redmond team ( Lotus 1-2-3, Wordstar, WordPerfect...) Microsoft has more power, speed, and a much larger vision. It is the mobile play, and their XPS could be some of the glue that links desktops, lapburners, and mobile devices to their server products that are very important to them. The battle in the mobile space makes the computing space seem tiny, and embedding XPS to their mail server provides a large missing element. This is bigger than just Adobe and other PDF's. Just another angle.