Why Adobe and Microsoft Hit Delete on PDF Deal

By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

If you want to know why so many computer programs are so bad these days, take a look at the Adobe-Microsoft mess.

These two powerful software developers have gotten into an argument over whether Microsoft can include a new feature in its upcoming Office 2007 productivity suite -- the ability to save your work as a Portable Document Format (PDF) file.

In the process, they're showing how old-fashioned greed and the more modern ailment of lawsuit phobia can turn a promising program sour.

Judged strictly on its merits, there's nothing to argue about that feature. It would end the worry that your Word, Excel or PowerPoint document might look weird or be unreadable on someone else's computer. PDF files preserve their appearance -- from fonts to footnotes to photos -- wherever they're read, so long as a recipient has a PDF-reader program. These programs, almost all free, are available for nearly every kind of computer, down to "smart phones" and handheld organizers.

Competing productivity suites, such as Corel's WordPerfect Office and the free and open-source OpenOffice.org, have offered this option for years. So does Apple's Mac OS X, which offers PDF output as a systemwide feature. When Microsoft announced in October that it would follow suit in its next release of Office, it seemed like a refreshing acknowledgment of reality in Redmond, Wash.

You'd think that would have delighted Adobe as well. The San Jose, Calif., firm has worked for years to establish the PDF as a standard way to share data, having written versions of its free Adobe Reader for all the major desktop and handheld operating systems. And while the company charges $299 for its Adobe Acrobat PDF-creation toolkit, it's encouraged other developers to release their own.

For some reason, however, Adobe saw things differently when Microsoft wanted to join the PDF party. As Microsoft explained, in February, Adobe asked it to sell this feature as a separate add-on for Office 2007.

"We needed to break it out, offer it separately and charge a price for it," recounted David Heiner, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, in a phone interview. Adobe also asked Microsoft to yank support for a Microsoft-developed, PDF-like format called XPS. Lastly, Adobe wanted XPS support removed from Windows Vista, the successor to Windows XP that is due in January.

If those demands were not met, the implication seemed clear: See you in court.

Adobe publicists would not answer questions about this. The company released a short, vague statement that said that Adobe's "sole motivation is to maintain a fair, competitive landscape in the software industry" but that it "has made no determination to take legal action against Microsoft."

Heiner said Microsoft wanted to avoid any legal entanglement and offered to yank the PDF-export option from Office, instead making it available as a free download (although, he added, Adobe still wants Microsoft to charge extra for it). Microsoft also would allow computer manufacturers to omit XPS software from the copies of Vista pre-loaded on new machines.

With Adobe clamming up in public, it's hard to figure out what this company is trying to accomplish. If Adobe wants to stop Microsoft's XPS from replacing its own PDF, what better way than to get PDF support in the single most-used productivity suite?

A more reasonable theory holds that Adobe is worried that Microsoft's own PDF software will produce files that aren't strictly PDF-compatible, thus poisoning this standard. But that makes little sense on examination; the best way for Microsoft to quash Adobe's format is to keep Office PDF-illiterate.

Then there's the thought that Adobe's Acrobat, at $299, will compete poorly with any free save-as-PDF option. But Adobe had to have foreseen that possibility when it issued a blanket invitation to the world to write PDF-compatible software. As its own documentation reads, "Adobe gives anyone copyright permission, subject to the conditions stated below, to . . . Write drivers and applications that produce output represented in the Portable Document Format."

Further, for any company to start telling another how it should charge for its products is at best arrogance, at worst price collusion -- a violation of basic antitrust law.

All that and more about this story refuses to add up. It doesn't help that neither company has earned much right to wear a halo.

Adobe has its own monopolistic instincts: Last year it bought what was by far its biggest competitor in the graphics-software business, Macromedia. And it's been happy to exploit the demand for its free Adobe Reader to push unrelated software on users -- the Windows version normally comes with a Yahoo toolbar and Adobe's Photoshop album photo organizer.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has a history of taking standards developed by other companies, then writing software that somehow makes them work best, or only, on Microsoft operating systems. That conduct helped Microsoft lose many of its antitrust battles in the past decade; it's easy to see why the company wants to avoid a return to those days.

Still, from what we do know, it's hard not to wish that the bad old Microsoft would reemerge for this one occasion and tell Adobe to go pound sand.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.

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