Microsoft Office Supports PDF: Q&A

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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.


  1. This is not exactly the right thread, but I can't find a way to comment on your link posts because they aren't really here.

    I think uncritical commenting on Groklaw as insightful is a disservice to all of us. Especially if it continues the meme that Brian Jones caused 100% FUD. All Brian did was mistakenly assume that the November 2002 Sun IPR Statement on OASIS Open Document implied the need for a license when the IPR statement was good enough to take as a license grant. Brian also asked for other people's appraisal and linked directly to the IPR statement. Simple fact-checking and discussion would have cleared it up.

    (Sun cleared it up another way, by producing a new IPR statement that is a tremendous improvement. No question about that. I hope Microsoft will follow through in making the same liberalization in the royalty-free license they are using for Office 12 XML, the Open Package Conventions, and other parts of Metro.)

    Also, I read the retired lawyer's analysis of the Microsoft license on Groklaw and it is all extreme extrapolation to worst cases, speculated out to the point where he treats a *supplementary* non-license comment that simply points out there is even more freedom in reading public records to be evidence that the license doesn't permit writing under any circumstances. That's all crap.

    The point is, these behavior-labeling assertions aren't helping. It just counters alleged FUD with more FUD. Simple fact checking and discussion is all it needed. Please ease up.

  2. orcmid: if you do a search, you'll see that i've been critical of Groklaw in the past for some of the things you mention – and caught quite a bit of flack for that, i might add. but in this case, it was my opinion that while Brian Jones may not have intended it as such, his comments on the subject came across as FUD. further, i have not seen him update his position following Sun's IPR statement – but correct me if i'm wrong on that score.

    i'm fully in agreement that emotion laced invectives and analysis based on preconceived notions, but it was my opinion in this case that Groklaw did a good job of deconstructing what amounted to, IMO, inaccurate claims.

  3. I think the new Sun Patent Statement makes further comment from Brian Jones unnecessary. I don't recall what he's said about that, if anything. (Those threads have gotten really long and I haven't checked lately.) I haven't asked him but I notice he is reluctant to discuss licensing and often stubs his toe when he makes efforts in that direction. Brian seems much happier just showing off what they're doing, includling all of the things that can be done already by using the Office 2003 support for XML.

    I agree that, for example, people got excited about Brian's pointing to the November 2002 Sun IPR statement and that Simon Phipps reacted a particular way to that aggitation.

    Also, as I hope you know, I do respect the balance you put into your analyses, such as this one about the PDF support. Maybe we should ban "FUD" as descriptive and work on the facts in evidence just as a good practice. Even if you do prefer the Sox [;<).

  4. Well, Brian has a response on the end of the last thread to talk about licensing, http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/archive/2005/09

    The comment he is responding to directly is right in front of that. Brian's first paragraph puts it this way: "People have been upset about our licenses, but when I went to find the licensing information behind PDF and OpenDocument there was definitely a lack of clarity (to say the least). Since I asked those questions the OpenDocument folks provided some updated documentation that appears to be much more clear, so that's good. Just because I was trying to better understand the situation doesn't mean I was spreading FUD."

    The rest of his post consolidates some of his previous responses, and people will accept that or not. I understand his perspective and also the wariness about getting heavily into what is still an immature specification from that perspective.

    Whether or not it would have turned out differently with Microsoft participation on the OASIS project — which was chartered specifically to base its result on the OO.o format as its input–we will never know. We're left to see what happens from here, not from never-when. Now it's time to see what happens as the heavy lifting and adoption experience plays out.

  5. PDF In Office 12 – Billy come lately?

    Whoopee! Now Office can do what OpenOffice/StarOffice and a host of other apps have already done for ages. That 10s of thousands of Office users have been requesting this function on a monthly basis for ages is also indicative of Microsoft’s lack of s…

  6. orcmid: thanks for the comments on balance; all i can say is that we try 🙂

    and actually, i think you say it best when you say "I haven't asked him but I notice he is reluctant to discuss licensing and often stubs his toe when he makes efforts in that direction. Brian seems much happier just showing off what they're doing, includling all of the things that can be done already by using the Office 2003 support for XML."

    i personally think Brian would be best served by steering entirely clear of commentary on the licensing issues with respect to the ODF. given that it's a complex arena, it's only too easy to be misread. plus there's the fact that such commentary has a tendency to come across as defensive in nature, and i think it's just unhelpful.

    far better to focus on the cool things that can be done with the new formats.

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