Well, up until a few hours ago, all anyone wanted to ask me about was the “Microsoft Office supports PDF” news, but now it seems like the only thing on everyone’s mind is the Google/Sun announcement scheduled for tomorrow. Well, seeing as I don’t know more than any of you on what the news is there – our customer Sun has not tipped us off as to what the big announcement is yet – I’ll leave that for others to speculate on. Instead, let’s discuss the news that broke over this weekend, the news that Microsoft has at long last chosen to support PDF as an output format for its forthcoming Office 12 suite. Here’s the Q&A:
Q: Leaving the vendors out of the equation for a moment, what does this mean for customers?
A: It’s great news. In the first link above, Microsoft’s Brian Jones mentions that their OfficeOnline site was getting 30,000 searches per week for PDF support, and that certainly reflects my observations of the potential demand for this functionality. In the comments on Brian’s announcement, one Microsoft customer, Craig Ringer, posted the following:
You just made my life so much easier that it’s astonishing. Word, while in many ways a great tool, has been the bane of my life in one regard, and that’s that customers tend to send in Word documents at work and expect them to print them as ads.
The inability to export easily to the PDF format was in fact one of the reasons we at RedMonk have embraced Open Office / Star Office for many tasks, and I can’t wait to get some of my old OneNote content exported to the platform independent PDF format. Given the prevalence of PDF as a standard for documentation of all types – enterprise, governmental, and otherwise – and the ubiquity of Microsoft Office, this news is liable to make a lot of people very happy.
Q: So the customers are happy – what about Adobe? How might they feel about it?
A: Well, thanks to the fine work of Janet Arsenault from Adobe’s AR department, I got the opportunity to talk to them about the news earlier this afternoon. The reaction was pretty unambiguously positive; the feeling is this move validates the role of PDF as a vital format in workflows for a variety of industries. Further, the Adobe position is that this will expose lots of new markets to the often unappreciated features of the PDF format, in security, digital signatures, etc. When asked about the potential overlap between the features in Office and current Adobe products like Acrobat, the feeling was that the Office PDF support would be competitive mostly with the lower level Adobe Elements product, rather than the more functional Acrobat Professional products.
Q: What’s your take on that?
A: Actually, I mostly agree. As I explained on the call, I see this as a net positive for Adobe, because I’m a believer in the notion held by folks like Jonathan Schwartz and Simon Phipps that volume is where the value is. And Office is a massive volume opportunity for PDF, and therefore an opportunity for Adobe for sales of its server based products, as well authoring and editing tools. I’ll have to talk to some Acrobat customers before I can get a solid read on what if any impact this decision might have on Adobe products, but on face value I more or less agree with Adobe’s position on this matter. Plus, it may stave off longer term threats from Metro.
Q: How do you mean that?
A: Well, having spoken to the Metro folks, I can tell you that they are very careful to not position Metro as a PDF alternative. With good reason, in fact, because Metro doesn’t do a lot of what PDF does. But it’s also my opinion that longer term Metro might logically become competitive with PDF, given that they share similarities in being able to preserve precisely formatting and are, in a sense, fixed preservations of on screen appearances. But if lots of Office 12 customers begin to leverage the PDF capabilities, the possibility of a Metro incursion into PDF territory becomes less likely.
Q: So what’s in it for Microsoft? What’s their incentive here?
A: Well, aside from the obvious one of making their customers happy, I see two major benefits to Microsoft:
- First, it increases their ability to position themselves as behind industry standards if not open ones. While PDF is not, by my definition, an open standard because it is vendor controlled – it is an open format and unquestionably a de facto standard. And not one controlled by Microsoft. Prior to this announcement, one could make the argument that at least in the Office productivity space Microsoft only supported standards they controlled, but that position is more or less undone by this news.
- Second, they plug an important competitive hole. Massachusetts was not the first and will not be the last Office customer to mandate PDF as a distribution format, and while Office used to be the only game in town for a lot of users, Open Office and its commercial cousin Star Office have improved to the point that they’re getting pretty good reviews. One of OO.o/SO’s real differentiators used to be the ability to natively export PDF, and this response from Microsoft ensures that that won’t be the cause of lost deals.
Those are the biggies, from where I’m sitting.
Q: So the big question on everyone’s mind is this: is this a response to the Massachusetts decision, or not?
A: Well, considering the timing, I’m hard pressed to conclude otherwise. Now Microsoft’s likely response would involve documenting the time invested to provide said support – something like the following:
In the case of PDF (as with almost any format) it was a good amount of work, but it is a mature, widely demanded addition that will be worth the effort. Another example would be the new XML formats we’re building which have taken a huge effort on the part of the PowerPoint, Excel, and Word teams. In Word there was the benefit of having a head start with the WordprocessingML format from Word 2003. For the other two applications though, it’s been about 20% of their overall development budget, which is huge considering all the other things we are building into Office “12”.
To be honest, I’m a bit skeptical of those numbers as I find it difficult to believe that it took 20% of a project team’s budget to deliver the same functionality delivered via lots of different commercial and open source plugins. But even assuming that they’re true, I still believe that the timing of the announcement of this feature is at least partially a response to the recent events in Massachusetts. Like another one of my favorite authors, Tony Hillerman, I’m not a big believer in coincidence, and given the fact that Microsoft’s had years to support PDF I find it implausible that this functionality arrives just a few weeks after a state government tapped non-Microsoft formats as their standard. Maybe the functionality’s been in the works for a while, maybe not, but even if so I’d guess it was more of a Plan B than anything else.
Q: Does that matter?
A: Not to customers it doesn’t. Whatever the reason for the new functionality, customers with investments in both Office and PDF win.
Q: If this was, in fact, partially a response to the State of Massachusetts, do you think it will change that landscape at all?
A: Not really. Unless and until Microsoft supports the Open Document Format alongside its own Office Open XML formats – which they’ve said they won’t do, Microsoft would not appear to be a player in situations like Massachusetts because the output format is only part of the equation. Where the PDF functionality will help, however, is organizations that are more or less content with Office but also are committed to PDF as an interchange/distribution format – financial services being one potential interested vertical.
Q: So how do you feel about the decision in general?
A: Well, I think it’s a great step for Microsoft – one that as mentioned will make a lot of customers happy. I think the move is overdue, but no less welcome for that. I believe that PDF was opened as a format in 1993 (Adobe folks can correct me if I’m wrong), meaning that it took 12 years for Microsoft to support the format in its products. I hope that the wait for ODF will be a lot shorter, but won’t hold my breath.