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Sep 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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The Portable Document Format: It's not your father's PostScript, as Frank Romano likes to say. Romano, a professor of graphic arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology, goes so far as to claim that the Portable Document Format is "the next revolution after Gutenberg."

Given the standing room-only crowds at the recent PDF seminars co-sponsored by Agfa and Adobe Systems, the PDF buzz is certainly growing louder. This special section will attempt to explain what all the buzz is about--and what the real business impact of PDF technology on commercial printing is expected to be in the coming months and years.

A PDF file is a little like one of the new super-slim laptop computers: it makes you wonder "how did they get all of that inside there?"

After all, PDF files give you:

* fonts, images and graphics all contained (for visual inspection) within the document itself, thus streamlining the transmission and preflighting processes;

* much smaller file size, due to the inclusion of industry-standard compression algorithms, than the equivalent PostScript or native files;

* platform independence, making them viewable by anyone on a Macintosh, Windows, or UNIX machine (with the Acrobat Reader installed);

* retention of printing control features (OPI comments, for example) specified in the authoring application through the conversion to PDF and back out to PostScript again.

And PDF technology is all about creating digital files that will--very soon--contain a variety of both graphical content and "job ticket" types of information--trapping, specifications, color management, print options and more--in a small, "clean" package that can be manipulated and archived by most major operating systems (such as Macintosh, Windows and UNIX).

In effect, the dream of PDF technology is to deliver "blind transfers"--i.e., an automated drag-and-drop of data between the creation and production phases of the printing process.

Moreover, some proponents of PDF workflows view them as the key to a "create once, output many" production that easily accommodates the repurposing needs of the emerging multimedia and Internet-based markets.

Whether PDF can indeed become the standard format for workflow processes and file transmission is unclear. Nonetheless, there are lots of interesting first steps being taken, largely due to the vigorous pioneering of Adobe Systems (with its Acrobat product line, PostScript 3.0 and the Extreme system architecture) and one of its largest OEMs, Agfa.

One immediate challenge in any discussion of PDF is terminology. Let's try to clear things up a little.

First, PDF is a file format for portable documents based on PostScript and invented by Adobe Systems.

Second, the phrase "Adobe Acrobat" refers to a suite of products that create, edit and print PDF files. Its key components are Distiller (which RIPs PostScript language files to PDF format), Exchange (which allows both viewing of PDF files, plus the use of third-party plug-in tools for editing and manipulating of those files) and Reader (a free cross-platform viewer). Additional Acrobat tools handle creating desktop PDF files through a non-PostScript Driver, cataloging functions and OCR capture of data.

Finally, Adobe's long-term vision for PDF technology is embodied in PostScript Extreme (formerly codenamed Supra), a multiprocessing RIP and production architecture. (More on Extreme later.) Extreme is expected to take in multiple page description languages (PDLs) and process them into PDF to reach a multiprocessing workflow.

Now that we've got some terms straight, we might ask: Why is this document delivery product--whose first use was as a tool for internal corporate applications--of such interest to graphic arts professionals? The answer lies partly in the present and partly in the future.

Technology consultant Dave Kew isn't waiting for the future to arrive. He and Robert Desautels of Transcontinental Printing founded the PDF Group two years ago to act as an "invisible voice" for commercial printers interested in PDF technology. The group's 11 member companies include R.R. Donnelley, Transcontinental, Quebecor, Western Laser Graphics, Moore Corp., Brown Printing, Kew & Associates, Quad/Graphics, Sullivan Graphics and Treasure Chest.

Kew says the PDF Group has been supplying Adobe with feedback on various high-end production issues, as well as offering a pool of knowledgable alpha and beta testers to expedite development.

This first wave of commercial printers isn't a large group yet. Kew speculates that the technology is mostly customer-driven at the moment, while printers are typically using PDF files internally, not in collaboration with their prepress houses as yet.

Moreover, those companies using Adobe Acrobat in real customer workflows generally are doing a mix of soft proofing and basic preflighting.

Interestingly, these are not all monochrome workflows. Here's an example:

1) save the incoming native file as PostScript

2) convert it to PDF using Acrobat Distiller

3) view it (on any platform) as a soft or "content" proof

4) output back to PostScript using Acrobat Exchange.

Result: The latter file is a much cleaner product ready to be RIPed to whatever configuration the final output device requires.

Importantly, an additional step--text editing--can occur before the last output to PostScript above and is handled by a touchup feature in the Exchange part of Acrobat 3.0.

Thus Acrobat now contains what Bob Schaffel, manager of emerging technologies for R.R. Donnelley, refers to as "early" editing tools, a key aspect of PDF's "late-binding" promise.

Here's a shop doing exactly what was just described: SS Studios in Union, NJ. With 40 employees, this prepress shop/ platemaker specializes in large packaging clients. Marco Cappuccio, the firm's digital technology manager, says SS has been making money with PDF files for over a year now.

In fact, SS has a Power Macintosh dedicated to just distilling PDF. "We're not using them as real production files as yet, only for content proofs or color indications," Cappuccio explains. His shop creates the PDF, e-mails it (with a job ticket) to the client, and then either gets an okay to proceed or reworks the file until it is satisfactory. SS uses the Re:mark plug-in (to Exchange) to mark up the PDF, thus avoiding the need for the client editing.

Cappuccio's shop finds that PDF files can't do certain key production steps yet. The functions Cappuccio is eager to see from Adobe and third-party plug-in vendors will enable real color proofing and trapping, as well as the ability to specify transparency in the color.

Summarizing his own viewpoint, Cappuccio advises: "The more PostScript-oriented your workflow, the better the fit with PDF files."

These many features and benefits of this technology lead Eric Smith, president of ScenicSoft (Everett, WA), to refer to PDF as a "megatrend" holding out much promise. His company announced in April that its imposition product, Preps, will support PDF for existing PostScript RIPs and will be integrating PostScript Extreme in future versions of the product. At Imprinta in June, ScenicSoft and Agfa demonstrated the integration of Preps into Agfa's new Apogee PDF-based production system with the imposing of PDF files.

With the 3.0 version of Acrobat, Adobe shows it has clearly heard the desires of commercial printers to extend this product's capabilities. For example, several new options for the Distiller product are now available, including the ability to preserve the original file's OPI comments, overprint settings, halftone screen information, UCR and black generation, and transfer (dot density) functions, as well as several color conversion options. From the 3.0 version of Exchange, the user can export to PostScript or EPS options (currently Macintosh only). The latter feature means that color separations specified in the original application are retained in the new file. Acrobat version 3.01, a maintenance release, is shipping currently.

Still, we have a ways to go with PDF, points out Sandy Bozek, R.R. Donnelley's manager of support central at its Technology Center (Lisle, IL). "For production printing, we still need preflighting features and the ability to merge PDF pages," she notes.

Moreover, the biggest single hurdle at the moment, Bozek adds, lies with a key application, QuarkXpress, and its need for a streamlined way to produce PDF.

This latter situation is a good example of Bozek's final observation: "Adobe can't do it alone--they'll need partnrs."

And Adobe has been recruiting a growing list of such partners-in-PDF, including:

* Agfa's new Apogee system, a PDF-based production system consisting of the "PDF Pilot" Production Manager, the PDF RIP, and the "PrintDrive" Output Manager;

* Luminous Technology, with three products supporting PDF production workflows (OPEN1.1, Media Manager 1.0 and PressWise 2.x);

* Markzware Software, with its FlightCheck preflighter;

* EnFocus Software NV's Tailor 2.0 (a visual PostScript editor that exports to PDF) and Pitstop 1.0 (an Acrobat Exchange plug-in for visual editing of PDF files);

* Group Logic's Imagexpo, a remote proofing toolset;

* Lantana Research Corp.'s Crackerjack plug-in to Acrobat Exchange, offering output control for separations, screening (both process and spot color) and more;

* OneVision's Digiscript, a powerful editor running only under NextStep at the moment;

* Cascade Systems' MediaSphere, a dynamic multimedia library, archive and content management system that handles PDF files (among other digital objects);

* Extensis' Portfolio 3.0 (formerly Fetch), a visual database with file translators to create PDF thumbnails and previews;

* DK&A's INposition 2.0 provides full PDF support (among many file formats supported), through its Tempus integrated plug-in technology.

Now take a look in Part Two of this section at the bigger picture--Adobe's PostScript Extreme architecture--and the longer-term, in order to assess where and how PDF workflows will impact the commercial printing business.

For more information, please refer to the charts on pages 77 and 79 of the September 1997 American Printer.

Ward Parsons is both a senior technical analyst with Macy's West in San Francisco and a PDF evangelist of sorts. He'd like everyone of the 54 newspapers (they're all west of the Mississippi) in which his company advertises to move to PDF workflows.

And Parsons is a volume user: after spending a year or so experimenting with PDF files internally, he now sends around 20,000 black-and-white ads annually through Associated Press' AdSend service.

"The traffic people at the newspapers love the AdSend job ticket feature," he reports. "It makes their jobs much easier."

At roughly 75,000 PDF files exchanged monthly, AP AdSend may be the biggest single PDF (and file transmission) project underway in the U.S. today.

AP AdSend is a digital transfer service for advertisers in the nation's daily newspapers, a very large percentage of whom are themselves subscribers. (A smaller number of subscribers are magazine publishers and even prepress companies.)

"The idea is to avoid the costs of all that postage and consumables spent shipping around advertising materials between advertisers, agencies and newspapers," explains Eric Riess, AdSend's western support manager in San Francisco.

To participate, customers only need a reasonably beefy Macintosh. AP supplies the software (a copy of Acrobat, a copy of its own "Delivery Ticket" package plus AP's telecomm package). Depending on the customer's traffic volume, AP will recommend and install anything from a simple modem to an ISDN line.

Macy's Parsons is about to move up to color ads next, expecting to transmit about 175 monthly very soon. He wants to use PDF in Macy's catalog work, as soon some color management and OPI-compatibility issues are resolved.

As for the AdSend service, Riess says the next big step is an automated space reservation system, which should be rolling out in the next six months or so.

PDF: *Flattened PostScript, much smaller file size *Predictable performance, eliminates PostScript errors *Late-binding printer *Multiple operating systems support

PostScript: *4096 levels of gray, eliminates banding *Improved font handling *HiFi color *In-RIP separations *In-RIP trapping *Job tickets *Interprets PDF natively

PostScript Extreme: *Adobe's high-end RIP technology *Creates and uses PDF as internal format *Late-binding workflow *Multiple parallel rasterizing *Multiple output devices