Case study: Blackadders have a cunning plan for PDF

Consider, if you will, a small irony. While PDF was conceived as a universal document format, for many reasons, organisations haven’t been able to make it available on every desk, reducing the broader deployment of this very useful ‘universal’ solution.
Probably with cost a factor, previously a business might have purchased a small number of relatively expensive PDF licences, turning those few users into a resource to be used by other parts of the business. The ‘PDF factories’ within these companies soon started to experience a decline in their own productivity as their colleagues interrupted them with PDF-related requests. They often took time out of their own jobs to help resolve their colleagues’ problems. This was one of the reasons why the ability to put a PDF solution on every desktop became all but irresistible for practically any type of business. Today, a further driver results from so much commerce moving online, combined with the exponential growth in smartphones and other portable devices. This has fuelled the requirement for an affordable universally portable document model. However, against this need for PDF, private and public sector organisations of all types and sizes are feeling the economic squeeze. That means that IT departments are looking very closely at how different PDF licensing models impact on cost.
Shackled by the past
Undeniably, one of the key issues with the broader uptake of PDF, is linked with its history. Initially developed as a way for the print/publishing industry to share content, PDF became ‘tied’ to Adobe Acrobat. As that software grew more feature heavy, all most business users really needed was a way to transform documents from various sources into a file that was easily shared with colleagues, suppliers and other stakeholders.
Over time, various products have sprung up which offer more ‘office-friendly’ ways to benefit from PDF, from a raft of freeware utilities that offer the most basic word-to-PDF conversion for casual or one-off users, to the likes of Nuance PDF Converter, software that matches paid-for competitors in almost every respect – apart, crucially, from cost.
Scottish law firm Blackadders LLP is a good example of an organisation that reviewed its former PDF solution and found there were more cost attractive alternatives. Blackadders LLP’s IT Director, Graham Thoms, comments: “At a fraction of the price of competitor products, Nuance PDF Converter provides excellent value for money, relative to its comprehensive feature set. The thing that is important to us is that the continuing support costs are also low, so we’re not having to pay so much to keep up with the latest changes in formats or compatibility.”
Reasons to be cheerful
Of course it takes more than cost savings – even in this day and age – to drive a business to swap one industry leader in favour of another. The old saying about nobody ever being fired for buying IBM (or Microsoft, Intel, etc.) still applies, even if the name of that incumbent supplier may change over time.  As already mentioned, the PDF market includes a number of freeware and shareware products, but it is fair to question how these would stand up to ‘serious business use’ in the enterprise or SME environment. For the legal market, for instance, this might mean powerful and secure redaction tools and audit trails, while a financial institution might need the ability to create powerful flexible electronic forms. Government organisations, meanwhile, will focus on the need for rapid deployment and minimal user training, as well as of course compliance with their own governance frameworks.
PDF offerings such as those from Nuance have possibly put competitor companies on the back foot, as they play catch up with capabilities that PDF Converter already offers. At the same time, Nuance’s more user-friendly licensing models are gaining ground across practically every industry, even the long-held bastion of the creative/design business. These PDF newcomers make it easier to add new users, to update software versions, to balance workloads – in essence making it easier for PDF, still the only truly portable document format, to fit with the way that end user organisations want to work. Competitor PDF companies could see the writing on the wall of course, and have reviewed how they run their PDF-businesses, even to the point of introducing more flexible licensing approaches.
The ‘P’ doesn’t stand for ‘Proprietary’
The days of PDF being a proprietary Adobe offering are long gone, as the format conforms to the ongoing ISO 32000 open standard introduced in 2008, making it suitable for use in government, healthcare and business alike. But somehow the perception has remained that PDF is inextricably linked to Adobe and therefore it is not as universally ‘useable’ as other major office file formats. In fact, just a few years ago, it wasn’t at all uncommon to hear office users refer to PDFs as ‘Acrobat files’. When was the last time you heard anyone use that phrase? The PDF – this almost unimaginably portable, flexible document format, conceived before the wider world was ready to fully grasp its potential benefits, is certain to become ever more widespread in an IT eco-system spreading onto tablets, phones and other ‘non-computer’ devices at a startling rate. Perhaps the irony that plagued PDF in the past is now coming to an end, as new, affordable PDF solutions finally enable the universal standard to flourish.