Collaborating via Acrobat 8 and Adobe Connect

Ussing digital proofing to improve workflow.

Nearly everyone likes the idea of proofing a job without having to send a hardcopy proof to the customer. A few print providers make money on hard proofs, but most see it as a good way to slow down the production cycle and increase the cost of the job.

One of the obstacles to soft proofs is that there needs to be a way to "sign off" on a proof, providing verification that the job has indeed been seen and approved. There also needs to be a way to mark up corrections, and preferably a way of doing it that leaves a trail-so you know who looked at the proof and when. And in many cases, it would be nice if you could collaborate on the process in real time at multiple locations.

If collaborating with your customers to get print output prepared, edited, corrected, proofed, watermarked, annotated, and digitally signed off on all seems like a pipedream-or at least something that would be incredibly expensive or difficult to do-you may not have seen the latest version of Adobe Acrobat Professional. Adobe has been improving the collaboration tools in Acrobat for quite some time now, and in Acrobat 8 Professional, all of the above can be done. As well as a bit more.

Exploring its features

Adobe has enhanced the toolset and user interface in Acrobat 8. Although the company has been adding markup tools for the past several iterations of Acrobat, many print providers have yet to take advantage of the tools in previous versions. These features, however, are well worth exploring.

When you launch Acrobat Pro 8, you get an opening splash window called Getting Started, which offers, among other things, a choice of "review and comment." To send a PDF out to be reviewed, you can then choose whether you want an e-mail review or a "shared" review. There are a couple of differences: In both modes, users of Adobe Reader (the free version) can participate and comment on an unchanging file. In addition, in Shared Review mode, the person initiating the process can track the status of all reviewers, and reviewers can see each other’s comments. In effect, a review layer is added to the document; the original content is never compromised in the review process.

When the customer receives a file for review, he or she accesses the commenting tools by selecting the Comment and Markup Toolbar in Acrobat Professional or in Reader. This gives each reviewer the ability to draw on top of the document with marker tools, attach sticky notes, arrows, stamps, highlighters, and so on. Of course, they are not really changing the original file. These files can be sent back and forth pretty easily via e-mail since the files are generally small even for production files; it’s also possible to simply send a smaller, down-sampled version for the collaborative process.

Shared Review documents have a built-in layer of security since comments are stored in a server shared folder, a Microsoft SharePoint document workspace, or a WebDAV folder. All the technical "stuff" is made easy for the user with an intuitive wizard that walks him or her through the set up. Documents sent out via e-mail can be integrated with other comments into an overall document review. Many users are also taking advantage of the digital signatures, security passwords, watermarks, and time stamping available through Acrobat to add some peace of mind to the process.

Connectivity and beyond

Just as importantly, with Acrobat Pro 8, access via a standard Web browser is also available through a secure Adobe server for a small monthly fee to access that capability. Dubbed Acrobat Connect, the Web service costs $39/month or $395 annually for one host [note that these prices are for the streamlined "individual" version, not the "professional" version]. Usage is unlimited and as many as 15 clients can be on at any one time. The only "add on" needed to use Connect is Flash (not surprising since Acrobat Connect is the latest revision of the former Macromedia Breeze), something that more than 90% of Web browsers already have, Adobe reports. Although Connect has been designed as a Web conferencing tool, when paired with Acrobat it also becomes a nice proofing-collaboration tool.

The Acrobat Connect hosted services include screen sharing, whiteboarding, chat, and more; and in the Professional version of Connect, you can also audio conference via Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP). You can embed the conference URL in an e-mail and send it to the person(s) you’d like to collaborate with. They will simply click on the "Start Meeting" button to join the meeting.

You do not need to have the Professional version of Acrobat to join and participate in the collaboration, although you do need it to initiate the conference. The initiator of the conference can allow access to collaboration tools through the free Acrobat Reader. Users of the Acrobat Pro version can launch Connect directly from a PDF document to begin a collaboration session. Acrobat Connect Professional also canbe set up in an on-premise, behind the firewall configuration, rather than through Adobe’s hosted service.

Acrobat Connect can, of course, go way beyond document review, since it is also a virtual conference room. And, it’s available for free trial download from Adobe’s website.

A few other relevant enhancements in Acrobat 8 are also relevant to print providers. For instance, you can combine multiple files into one searchable PDF while maintaining all of the security settings and digital signatures of the original. Adobe reports that the new software does a faster job of converting AutoCAD files to PDF, though some reviewers have complained that they did not add automation tools for this process. There is also an improvement in saving PDFs in Microsoft Word format, though this functionality is understandably problematic due to the inherent file structure and graphics found in PDF files.

Worth a look
Of course, there are proprietary systems on the market that can perform this same function, as long as the print provider has the software to do it; clients and buyers can log on through a simple Web browser (sometimes with the aid of a plug-in) to do their end of the collaboration. But these systems are quite pricey when compared with the street price of Acrobat Professional full version (about $400); and many print shops already own Acrobat through their purchase of Adobe Creative Suite.

A couple of caveats to note: Although I find the new user interface to be cleaner, more intuitive and more consistent, other reviewers call it clunky and non-intuitive. And, some users have commented that Acrobat has become bloated with unneeded features. I tend to disagree on both counts, but it’s worth noting that such disagreement exists. All the reviews I have seen, however, do agree that the enhanced collaboration tools can be extremely helpful to print providers and for document collaboration and mark-up in general. And if real-time or at least near-time collaboration makes sense, Acrobat Connect is well worth a look.