Christopher Smith on Adobe Acrobat and PDF Conference

As an Adobe Certified Expert in Acrobat, Smith regularly provides consulting services and develops PDF implementation strategies for organizations large and small. A skilled communicator, Smith has delivered Acrobat training sessions to more than 5,000 attendees. Smith’s many Acrobat books include Teach Yourself Adobe Acrobat in 24 Hours, Real World Adobe Acrobat and he is a contributing author and editor for the Adobe Acrobat Classroom in a Book for both versions 6 and 7.

Under Smith’s leadership, AGI Training has become the largest provider of PDF training services in North America, offering classroom training in 6 U.S. cities and customized training and curriculum development world-wide. Smith is actively involved in education outside of the world of PDF and serves as an elected member of the School Board in his hometown in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.

I caught up with him during last week’s Adobe Acrobat and PDF Conference in Orlando. The interview text follows.

DAN SHEA, Planet PDF Managing Editor: First up, what’s your ‘mission statement’ for the show as a whole?

CHRISTOPHER SMITH, CEO, American Graphics Institute: We’re looking to provide the highest quality educational sessions for a variety of users, whether they are managers who need to oversee the implementation of a PDF strategy, technology specialists from an IT or development standpoint who need additional resources and are either keeping up-to-date or even just getting into PDF development. Another target group is PDF users who are trying to work with Acrobat or other PDF tools in the general office environment. That’s why we run three dedicated tracks, to meet those very different needs.

SHEA: This is the third time around now, so how do you feel the show has grown and matured since its inception in 2003?

SMITH: Probably the biggest and most significant positive change has been the expanded involvement in the selection of speaking positions, speaking roles and the sessions that are presented. Selecting from a hundred different speaking proposals and then trying to solicit others where we think there are vacancies requires some tough choices.

Leonard Rosenthol was very involved in the speaker selection process this year; he was very involved with the Technical Track, and was incredibly important in helping us develop a better technical track. He might not know the needs of the User Track, whereas I happen to spend a great deal of my time dealing with end users, so I think we’ve been able to put together a great User Track — I might be a bit biased in that regard (laughs). And I do believe that along a similar line, Ted Padova — who crosses so many different areas of use of PDF — his involvement in selecting different speakers and then trying to find gaps in our schedule that should be filled. Having all of these great minds and influencers of PDF get together to try and ascertain what’s going to best serve the PDF community — I’m so thrilled to have their involvement in the direction and development of the content. I also believe that we’re continuing to see more and better speaking proposals, and I’m glad to hear that the word of the conference is getting out. The development of high-quality content is, in my opinion, the most significant change and improvement. It was good in the past, and I think it’s really top-notch this year.

SHEA: I’m not sure if you are willing to give a number on the record, but what’s the turnout like this year, compared to previous years?

SMITH: Attendance continues to grow, sponsorship interest continues to grow, so hundreds and hundreds of users are attending the conference.

SHEA: How does it compare with your targets?

SMITH: We’ve exceeded our target every year. So I can tell you that this event has taken place in a resort that holds nearly 2,000 guest rooms, and we block off a significant number of those for the conference. For the past two years, we’ve sold out of our room block. Fortunately, Disney has adjoining resorts that we’ve been able to move our overflow guests into. They still get great accommodation, but some of the last-minute attendees were moved. I couldn’t believe that we were able to sell out of the rooms that we had.

SHEA: What kind of feedback have you been getting from exhibiting vendors and delegates?

SMITH: The exhibitors have been commenting on the opportunity to interface with so many influencers within the PDF community. Whether it’s authors, managers, directors, media or stock analysts, such a wide variety of people that are involved — heavily involved with the PDF community in general, and some cases with Adobe itself. It’s great to see the involvement of the sponsors, a very important part of the event, and I believe that they are getting fantastic exposure within this community. There are some great products that are out there… So many people view PDF as being Adobe, and use the terms interchangeably, but all of the additional products that are available — whether that’s a competing solution to an Adobe product, or an enhancement and add-on solution — all of those have a place in the PDF ecosystem. And, they are all here.

SHEA: What do you think have been the highlights of this year’s show?

SMITH: So, express some favoritism? (Planet PDF CEO Karl De Abrew moderated several conference sessions) We’ve had a number of great sessions associated with the LiveCycle server products, and the LiveCycle Designer, and been seeing very strong interest in that. It’s great to see not only who showed up to the hands-on sessions, which were pre-conference sessions, but also for sessions that are going on here at the event. There’s also a strong interest in the multimedia aspect — no-one can tell the story of multimedia in PDF better than Bob Connolly — and it’s been fascinating to hear how enthused people are with his work. I’ve been receiving a number of comments on the Technical Track from people who are excited about the developer information from Leonard (Rosenthol, of PDF Sages), and the high-level JavaScript information they’re getting from Thom Parker (of WindJack Solutions). The ability to interface with high-powered individuals from Adobe Systems that have been here at the event is a highlight for attendees, and it’s been very worthwhile for them. So I’m very happy to know that the attendees are getting what they wanted out of the show, having their questions answered, and their expectations exceeded.

SHEA: If you had to sum it up, how would you describe the changes in the PDF industry since you first started training?

SMITH: The changes in the past ten years? Wow! Acrobat is so pervasive, and has so many vertical markets; the needs of our pharmaceutical clients differ from those of our media clients in the newspaper and magazine industries, and those in turn are different from the needs of our general office users. So, we’re finding that many of our customers are now starting to recognize the full value of using PDF as a way to archive, share, review and markup data. Tools that have been available for many, many years — review and markup really came into their whole life in Acrobat 3. The expansion and enhancement of those commenting tools continues in Acrobat 7, and I think that we’re going to see more and more adoption of the tools. My take is that, speaking to Adobe Acrobat, Adobe is doing a great job of starting to make the tools more usable, whether it’s enabling standard commenting, review and markup in the Reader, making the tools more accessible, or making it more user-friendly to establish a commenting cycle. That serves everyone well, and more people understand the power that exists within the PDF file format.

SHEA: What are your ambitions for the conference in 2006 and beyond?

SMITH: This year, we were only able to get Goofy to appear at the opening night party. Next year, we are shooting for Mickey, and I think we might be able to get him, with the larger turnouts that are continuing to come here every year.

SHEA: OK, now for some breaking news. What’s your immediate reaction to Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia?

SMITH: Having read through a number of mergers and proposed mergers involving Adobe Systems, Altsys, which predated Macromedia, and various news that had come out of Denver, where Fred Ebrahimi was purporting to make an offer to Quark, I take some of this with a grain of salt. I take a somewhat cautious view, reserving judgment on any of this until the full implementation plan gets put into place for the merger. My initial thought this week is obviously on the ramifications to the PDF community. How will this allow the PDF standard to continue to evolve? Adobe has already been opening the PDF file format to allow for incorporation of things like SWF — the flash file format — which was great to see, but it’s very interesting to wonder whether the next version of the PDF file format will integrate any of the technology that exists in SWF. There’s obviously some great technology that exists there for delivering rich content, and I’m optimistic that it will mean good things for PDF continuing to evolve to reach the mobile community as well. I’m very excited about those prospects.

SHEA: Should it all go ahead, do you see there one day being a very lightweight alternative viewer for PDF similar to the flash viewer?

SMITH: We’ve seen the evolution of SVG to SVG Tiny, and we’ve seen the evolution of file formats to really push towards mobile authoring and delivery. Adobe has obviously taken a very strong interest in reaching out to the mobile community; that’s been evident in the continuing evolution of GoLive and the continuing evolutions of Adobe Reader onto new and smaller, portable platforms. There are so many users now taking advantage of everything from cell phones, to PDAs, handhelds or other alternative computing devices, and with the PDF file format’s prevalence on the desktop, I would be surprised if Adobe did not continue to evolve that format to make certain that it retains dominance as a method for delivering data securely and in a robust manner to a wide audience.

SHEA: What about Flashpaper? On one level at least, it was previously viewed as a competitor to PDF, but although we are advocates of PDF, Flashpaper did seem to have a home in the display of simple, flat documents on the web: it was very quick, simple, and intuitive. How do you see that technology either co-existing with or being worked into the PDF technology?

SMITH: It’s entirely possible that the development teams at Adobe and Macromedia will put their heads together, and find the best features of the technologies that conserve the needs of delivering content to users. That is, I think, what we all hope for as recipients of this technology.

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About the Author: Dan Shea

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