PDF Master: Aandi Inston talks with Planet PDF

As part of our ongoing reflection on the June 1993 introduction of Adobe Acrobat and PDF by Adobe Systems, Planet PDF CEO Karl De Abrew is conducting a series of brief ‘Masters of the PDF Universe’ profiles with key members of the Planet PDF community. Today Karl talks with Aandi Inston of Quite Software (www.quite.com). Aandi, a one-man oracle on the technology, has most certainly answered more Acrobat/PDF-related questions and offered more free online assistance in the past decade than anyone we know. In addition, Quite Software’s products are used and publicly acclaimed by many, including former Adobe Systems CEO and co-founder John Warnock.

KARL DE ABREW: Today many Acrobat & PDF users will be familiar with you because of your regular involvement in PDF-related user forums and discussion lists across the Web and also through Quite Software. When and why did you first get involved with Acrobat/PDF?

AANDI INSTON: ‘In 1992 I got my first PC. That may seem late, but I had spent years working around computers, and hadn’t previously seen a need for my own one. After playing with it a while and getting bored with games, I felt I wanted a challenge.

So I set out to write something that was large, interesting, and which hadn’t been done – an interactive PostScript tool. This took around 5 years, and well over 100,000 lines of code. PostScript had a double use, as I was working in newspaper publishing, and the tool turned out to be very useful dealing with the day to day problems facing a busy newspaper.

And PostScript led into PDF. Why? I had become involved in Compuserve’s discussion forums, answering questions on PostScript (after I got over the initial disappointment that nobody would answer mine). But there wasn’t very much discussion. When Acrobat appeared, the PostScript connection was very clear and made it easy to master. PDF 1.0 and Acrobat 1.0 were a whole lot simpler!

Later, I left my employer to start selling the tool I’d written (no, I didn’t use any work time!) I called this PSAlter. But looking for the next product, it was clear to me in 1996 that a lot more people would be buying PDF tools than PostScript tools. So I began writing Acrobat plug-ins. And Quite Software – as we decided to call the company – took off.

Meanwhile, I found more forums where PostScript and PDF were discussed, and stayed active. I estimated that I post something over ten thousand messages a year, which may account for why so many replies are rather short.’

DE ABREW: Briefly describe the most significant change in the development or use of the technology, since you first began working with Acrobat/PDF, and why do you consider it significant?

INSTON: ‘That’s a tough one. For the most part what happens is that groups
of people find new uses for Acrobat or PDF, and this becomes
significant enough that new features appear for that target group.
No one thing stands out as most significant.

Perhaps rather than an Acrobat-based advance, what excites me
is how many things are available on the Internet that would
perhaps never have been made available in another form. Google
lists over 8 million PDF files.’

DE ABREW: Acrobat and PDF are now used in so many industries and in so many ways, do you see new areas that haven’t perhaps been tapped much yet?

INSTON: ‘Acrobat and PDF are getting in all sorts of places, but there are many areas where it isn’t. Some random thoughts:

  1. PDF reading appliances or palmtops. Reading PDFs is always an afterthought with these appliances, and the processing power seems to limit what can be done with PDFs. An appliance designed to work with PDF at its core could be really interesting. A key problem with adopting PDF in other technologies, though, is that regular updates to the PDF format make it a moving target; and Adobe don’t have the right mix of tools and technologies available to license and keep up to date.

  2. Online help. Developers would love to use PDF to provide their help, because they are already using it for their manuals. There are some holes in what Adobe provide that mean that while they can get close, PDF help is not really very useful. Also, most useful applications require the full Acrobat, so they can’t be distributed. The challenge for Adobe here is not only technical, but to figure out if they can make revenue from putting efforts into this area. Adobe actually use HTML help in their own products, and this strikes me as just weird.

  3. Revenue again. Sorry to return to it, but like any business Adobe will only do what makes them money. The key area where PDF is missing is the home market, because the business-level price of Acrobat keeps it out. If Adobe can find how to tap that market without hurting their corporate and professional markets, that could be huge. But it’s really difficult to make money with $29 software, it may never happen.’

DE ABREW: Acrobat has grown into a large, multi-function tool for use in so many areas — including document management, presentations, collaboration, forms and prepress — and it can be intimidating for new users. Is there a need for separating out this functionality to make it easier to use.

INSTON: ‘There is no doubt that the Acrobat product has a lot of features. But having a lot of features is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. What matters is presentation. Microsoft Word has a zillion features, and most people never use most of them, but I don’t think people are intimidated or confused by Word. Adobe have a major challenge to make Acrobat more accesssible, because after all writing a document is a much simpler thing than all the different things Acrobat might do.

The key problem with Acrobat is its lack of a starting point, so new users, used to a culture of never reading a word of documentation, get lost. Worse, they frequently arrive at a very limited understanding of how to use Acrobat, which they then are unable to apply to new situations. Perhaps the commonest example of this is the ‘Create PDF’ button in Word. Intended as a shortcut and to add useful features, many users only learn this way of making PDF, and are lost in any program that doesn’t have a ‘Create PDF’ button.

Making Acrobat smaller and taking features out wouldn’t necessarily solve this – as long as there is even one choice, and people don’t read manuals, there will be people going the wrong way.

Adobe made a bad move with Acrobat 5.0, to remove the ‘Acrobat Tour’ that had been on the help menu. While not prominent enough, it did give a good, short, help in the right direction. Acrobat vitally needs this kind of thing, but more prominent.’

DE ABREW: Pondering the future of Acrobat and/or PDF, what most excites you about the next few years?

INSTON: ‘That things I haven’t thought of, that Adobe never thought of, will continue to happen and surprise us all.’

DE ABREW: Briefly describe a common misconception about or frequent problem you’ve seen with Acrobat/PDF that you’d like to try to clarify for others and/or provide a tip to address.

INSTON: ‘There are so many. Some people become enraged because Acrobat doesn’t do something, because they decided that was what it did. Some people are desperate because their job seems to depend on Acrobat doing something nobody ever designed it for. My tip is to find out what Acrobat can do, before promising your boss to do something!’

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