Microsoft has Office Live, Google has Google Docs, Apple has iWork.com, and now Adobe has their own document web application: Acrobat.com. Acrobat.com, however, provides more complete web applications than any of the other three.
Acrobat.com provides a file manager, which allows you to upload Word, Powerpoint, and Excel files and share them with others; a word processor, presentation and tables application; and online meeting. Of course, it is built in Flash.
This is an increasingly crowded field, and there is wide disagreement in how these applications should work. Apple and Microsoft’s applications serve as compliments to their desktop applications, whereas Google and Adobe’s are standalone.
Let’s take a look at Acrobat.com’s applications, and see how well they work.
The file manager is Acrobat.com’s hub. Here, you can upload files, organize them into “collections” (equivalent to folders), open them in their respective application, share them with others, or convert them into PDFs. (Free accounts can convert 5 files into PDFs, while premium accounts can convert unlimited number of files. There are $14.95/month and $39.95/month plans.)
Office 2003 and 2007 formats are supported for uploading, but presentations exported from Keynote as a PowerPoint file would not upload, nor would spreadsheets exported from Numbers as Excel files. Documents exported from Pages as Word files worked fine, however.
Just like the other services, uploading your files to Acrobat.com allows you to access them anywhere you have an Internet connection. The file manager isn’t remarkable, but it doesn’t need to be. It should be simple to upload files and manage them, and it is.
You can easily share files with others through the file manager. You enter their email address, specify whether you want them to edit the file or just review it, and that’s it. This makes it easy to send a document to a number of people and easily manage their input.
What the file manager will not do, however, is export documents in anything other than PDF format — which means you will need to use Acrobat.com as your main application suite, as opening them in any other application isn’t an option.
Document sharing is great. But how are the actual applications?
The three applications share a common toolbar. Rather than show all options at once, or put them behind menus, it groups together different options by type (font, paragraph, list, et cetera), and represents them with an icon. Clicking on the icon displays the available options.
It’s an interesting UI, and it works well. The icons are quite good, and only showing one set of options at a time makes interaction simple.
The bottom bar controls sharing, document history, and zoom. The sharing section allows you to invite another person to collaborate on the document, and to see who’s currently viewing or editing the document.
The document history feature works well. It shows a timeline of when the document was edited, with edit dates represented by circles. Clicking on a date does what you’d expect — it moves the document back to what it was at that point. It underlines changes made from the last version, and allows you to jump from change to change. This makes it easy to see how the document has changed over time.
Curiously, history is only available in the word processing and tables applications. The presentation application is left out for the time being.
The font choices are, unfortunately, limited; you can choose among seven fonts. Interestingly, while Adobe Garamond Pro is available in the word processing application, it isn’t in the presentation application. The only reason I can see for this is Garamond is a serif font, and Adobe doesn’t think serif fonts are readable enough for presentations. In any case, the selection is disappointing.
One thing I particularly like is that although the applications are built in Flash (natch), keyboard commands still work. You can tab, copy, paste and cut, move back with command-z, and scroll through documents. This eliminates one of my main complaints about Flash-based applications: normal interactions don’t work correctly.
The word processing application, called “Buzzword” by Adobe, is a quite powerful web application.
To test, I uploaded an 8,400 word essay in Word format. Buzzword respected the document’s formatting; colors, headers, size, and indenting all remained. Images, too, remained, but charts that were in the document disappeared. This is likely because the application doesn’t currently support charts, but it would be nice if charts were replaced with a notification that they were removed.
The application has a custom scroll bar as well. It lists page numbers, so you can click on them and easily jump to a different section. It’s a good idea and works quite well. Normal scrolling works.
It provides basic options for altering the document. You can change alignment, line-height, paragraph spacing, and indenting. While the application doesn’t have anywhere near the capabilities of desktop word processing applications, it’s quite competent. There is no reason users can’t use Buzzword for basic word processing needs — school papers and notes, for example.
Combined with the application’s sharing features, Buzzword works well for collaboration. It makes it easy for teams to work on a paper together, with each person able to add their parts, review the entire paper and comment on it as needed, and rollback to past versions. This is exciting; Buzzword makes those “I didn’t get the attachment” excuses a thing of the past.
The presentation application is a bit of a different story. It’s still a good application, but because presentation applications necessarily are more complicated, its usefulness is limited to simple presentations.
The application is well laid out. As expected, slides are on the left. You can duplicate, delete, and drag to re-order them. Like desktop presentation applications, it has a master style for each theme. Users can edit the master slides and apply these changes to their entire application, or default certain slides to the master.
Unfortunately, the master feature is broken into two separate parts: layout, and “Master.” Layout controls precisely what you’d expect — slide layout — while Master controls the styling. It would be much simpler if the two were combined, so you can edit the master layout and style together.
The provided themes, however, are ugly. The only theme I liked was called “Plain as Night” — and this was a simple gray-on-black style. I wouldn’t consider using any of the other themes. This is a problem, because although you can create your own themes by changing the color scheme, layout, and inserting images, I like to start with a nice theme as a base and edit from there. I suspect most people use presentation applications the same way.
It is surprisingly feature-complete. You can choose from a number of slide transitions, insert images, .flv videos, and all kinds of shapes. You can even add shadows and blur to the shapes.
It doesn’t support object animation, however, so this doesn’t change how the application can be used — it still is only really useful for basic presentations. There isn’t anything wrong with this, of course; many people would find the tradeoff between excellent collaboration and more advanced features an easy one to make. But these are also necessary features for many people in a presentation application, so it isn’t quite as useful as Buzzword is.
This is more due to how people use these applications. Most use word processing applications for basic uses — indenting, text styling, spacing and aligning are all they need. This makes word processing applications particularly good candidates for bringing to the web. Presentation applications, however, don’t work this way. Many users do use their more “advanced” features, which are difficult to implement on the web. This means that no matter how well designed a web presentation application is, it won’t approach its desktop counterparts.
Buzzword and the presentation application are quite good for web applications. Buzzword is more than good enough for most users, and the presentation application is quite nice for simple presentations.
But “for web applications” is an important modifier. Adobe’s goal isn’t to complement desktop applications, but to replace them altogether. While word processing, presentation and table applications need collaboration features, I am not convinced that this means the entire application should be web-based. Desktop applications are faster, have more features, and more integration with the OS.
Desktop applications can integrate the web for strong collaboration. Rather than pursue a separate web application for viewing and commenting on documents, like Apple has done with iWork.com, they could build a web service that connects users to each other so the document shows up in the other person’s application. This would leverage the strengths of the web and desktop.
This doesn’t eliminate web-based application’s main advantage, being able to work on documents from anywhere, but I don’t think this is a frequent enough use-case to outweigh desktop application’s advantages. This does mean, though, that light web applications will have their place, but they need to easily integrate with their desktop counterparts. Unfortunately, although the actual applications are quite good, Acrobat.com doesn’t offer a means to export documents in any format other than PDF. This is because Adobe wants these to be inclusive applications, but it misplaces their focus.