Click here for the Zine & E-Zine Resource Guide

Adobe Acrobat: The Killer App
of Online Publishing
by Mike Lee

The advent of the World Wide Web was a landmark in the history of publishing, but the Web's basic components don't handle many of the subtleties of publishing very well. Many elements you may want to present online cannot be squeezed into the straitjacket of HTML, GIFs, and JPEGs. A Web "page" is not really equivalent to a printed page at all, and, at times, you may want a document on your site that actually prints the way it's supposed to.
That's the problem my colleagues and I faced when we designed our literary Web site in 1996. We wanted something better than pages you could only read on your computer monitor. We wanted publications you could actually print and take somewhere else, publications that looked and read as much as possible like actual books—fonts included.
Our solution? Adobe Acrobat, the Web's Best Kept Secret. We'll get to the details below, but here's a teaser: Acrobat packs everything—text, fonts, and graphics—into a single file. This file can be viewed on almost any personal computer or workstation. And it prints with such fidelity to the original that even the IRS uses Acrobat to distribute tax forms from its Web site.

The "Paperless" Office

You may have heard of Acrobat years ago, when Adobe marketed it as a kind of groupware product—a way to let many people work on the same information while tracking changes by user. The original idea was that you could create a document on one computer, then annotate or print it on another. The same document could be passed around a company and viewed on any machine, regardless of operating system.
Unlike word processor files, Acrobat documents can travel easily from platform to platform—from Macs to PCs to Unix and even OS/2—with no translation, no compromises, no loss in quality. The fonts and graphics used to create the file are packed inside it. You don't need the program that originally created the file in order to view or print it.
It is, as they say, an elegant hack. But Acrobat found few early takers, and the product languished while the world moved on. Part of Adobe's problem was maturity: the program had to go through a revision or two to become elegant. Another problem was that with the first version, Adobe charged for every "seat" or user, even if the user was just viewing Acrobat documents. With the release of Acrobat 2, the Reader application became free, and was suddenly bundled on virtually every software CD-ROM.
This set the stage for that great migration to the Web—where the need to do what Acrobat does became apparent.

Outlines, Not Designs

The Web wasn't intended for graphic designers. It was meant to present plain text in hierarchical fashion, like a formal outline, and to present clear links between text in different documents—a user-friendly version of Gopher, an earlier Internet technology. That's why the original suite of HTML codes indicated not fonts and layout, but textual qualities: Header 1, Header 2, Paragraph, and so on. Images, if they were presented at all, were strictly flush left (and, if you used the original NCSA Mosaic on a slow connection, took forever to download and display even then).
Imagine explaining to your grandchildren the revolution that Netscape 1.0 created: Centered graphics! It hasn't gotten much better. As visually sophisticated as some pages look these days, under the hood it's a scene from the film Brazil, with nested tables, single-pixel transparent GIFs, and all manner of arcane tricks designed to present something that approximates what you can do in five minutes with a conventional page-layout program.
And it still doesn't print very well.
So what does Acrobat offer that HTML lacks? One word: PostScript.

Describing a Page

Adobe's PostScript page description language is what computers use to talk to most laser printers and all imagesetters (very high-resolution output devices used for professional output). It's the heart of desktop and professional electronic publishing, and it set off a revolution when it was used in the first Apple LaserWriter and Aldus PageMaker 1.0 (long before Adobe bought Aldus).
The computer uses PostScript to describe a page in terms of all the elements that appear on it, including placement of graphics and spacing of fonts. Typically, whatever program you're using downloads to the printer any TrueType and PostScript fonts needs to print a given document. So whenever you print to a PostScript printer, your computer creates a file and downloads it to the printer, and then the printer interprets it—the result being your printed copy.
Acrobat sits between the computer and the printer. Rather than sending a PostScript file (which is just a plain text file) to the printer, you save it on your hard drive. This file is interpreted by Acrobat, just like a printer would interpret the PostScript file, and instead of printed output, you wind up with a Portable Document Format (PDF) file which is virtually identical to what the printed page would look like.
A PDF file is self-contained and highly compact—compression is built in for all elements—and can travel conveniently across computer platforms and across the Web. If you have the Acrobat Reader, mentioned earlier, that's all you need to view and print a PDF file. Look around your CD-ROMs—it's likely that the Acrobat Reader shipped with some product you own, and Adobe includes it on every CD-ROM they produce. You can also download the latest version for free from the Adobe Web site, but it's anywhere from 5 MB to 7 MB in size, depending on which platform you choose.
The Acrobat PDF file can look as good as anything you can design in your layout program, because that's where you create it. Think of it: PageMaker or QuarkXPress on the Web! That's the promise that Acrobat offers and delivers. For myself and my designer colleagues, Acrobat is the killer app of online publishing.

Production Cycles

Let's walk through a typical production cycle, which, in our case, is presenting a short story on our Web site. Many of the steps are the same as conventional publishing: We edit the piece, commission an illustration, scan it into Photoshop if necessary, and create title graphics and typography in FreeHand. From there, our work branches in two parallel directions: separate versions in HTML and Acrobat, one to be read online, the other to be downloaded from our site and printed.
The Acrobat version is designed in PageMaker. To provide the appearance of a book, we have a basic two-column horizontal layout, similar to the effect of photocopying an open spread (or, for that matter, holding a book open in your lap). We fuss over the typography—fonts, sizes and leading—the same as we would for conventional publishing. Finally, we import the cover illustration (TIFF or EPS—no GIFs to sweat over) and fuss some more until we're satisfied.
We could, at this point, take the PageMaker file to a commercial printer. Instead, we turn it over to Acrobat.

Article continues...

return to main

external sites open in new window
report new or dead sites here