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Always on the prowl for free software utilities and programs that can save time and money, the release this July of Acrobat.com (Beta) from Adobe Systems caught my attention. After all, Adobe has a well-earned reputation as a software pioneer. As the developer of the PDF, which quickly became the universal standard file format for electronic document exchange, and as creator of the Acrobat family of programs, Adobe products are staples in the modern law office.
True to Adobe’s odd affinity for confusing product names, the new suite of services is called “Acrobat.com.” Little sister to its commercial business and enterprise-level product, Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, the goal of Acrobat.com is document-oriented collaboration, similar to the likewise free Google Docs (Beta). To that end, Acrobat.com presently has five major components (with plans to add spreadsheets, presentations and other increased functionality in the future): Buzzword, ConnectNow, Share, MyFiles and Create PDF.
Buzzword. This basically offers the same limited functions as the Google Docs word processor, which are rudimentary at best and therefore inadequate for exclusive use by most legal professionals. However, in contrast to the tired Google Docs user interface, Buzzword’s vivid, clean and bright interface is strong and alluring, powered by Adobe Flash/Flex technology.
Buzzword really shines when it comes to collaborative tools, especially for working with others on the same document in real-time. Access to Buzzword documents is granted to collaborators by owner-designated “roles” (i.e., co-author, reviewer or reader), with each contributor’s comments being easily distinguishable by automatic color-coding. Rather than the e-mail method of collaborating with others on documents, Buzzword users “invite” others to join a document in an assigned role. This centralizes and streamlines document control.
Simply click the Share icon in the tool bar at the lower left of the screen, and a dialog box appears where you enter the e-mail addresses of those with whom you want to share a document. Of course, each collaborator will need an Acrobat.com account, which only takes 30 seconds to obtain by simply providing your name and e-mail address, and choosing a password. An e-mail from Acrobat.com then is sent to potential collaborators, while Buzzword instantly and graphically displays all those with rights to the document in the Share tool bar.
Tracking a document’s version and editing history never has been easier — simply click on the History tab at the lower right of the screen (represented by a lovely Venus icon) to access a graphic chronology of the versions and editing history of any document.
One of my favorite features in Buzzword is its built-in document organizer. Unlike typical Windows Explorer and typical Windows applications, lists of documents in Buzzword can be viewed in meaningful ways: alphabetically, by author, by last edit date, by file type, by size (number of pages, rather than file size), by share status, as a list or as thumbnails. This makes finding files quicker, easier and less of a headache.
In my view, while Buzzword obviously is no replacement for high-end word-processing programs such as Microsoft Word, it definitely has great potential, and likely even a use for legal collaborators today. While admitting that Buzzword has only about 15 percent of the functionality of a robust program like Word, Adobe is committed to adding more Word-like features in the future. This means Buzzword can’t handle doing things such as creating footnotes (only endnotes) or generating tables of contents or authorities. What is more, legal professionals’ security concerns are minimized with Buzzword, which is backed by Secure Socket Layer encryption, not to mention the Adobe reputation.
ConnectNow. One of the most promising features of Acrobat.com is ConnectNow, a free version of its commercial enterprise-level Web-conferencing program, ConnectPro. ConnectNow allows users to host live online meetings and includes just about every feature you would want, including screen-sharing (requires additional installation of a ConnectNow plug-in), Webcam, notes, chat, Voice-over-Internet Protocol and file-sharing. ConnectNow’s major limitation is that only a total of three attendees are allowed, including the host. For the individual and small firm, however, ConnectNow makes it easy to do things such as troubleshoot PCs remotely, conduct in-house training and, of course, collaborate on any number of things, at no cost. By contrast, subscriptions to similar services, offered by big names in Web-conferencing such as WebEx, start at roughly $40 a month, or can be purchased on a pay-per-use basis.
Create PDF. Create PDF simply is a portal to create PDFs from the most common file types, which is something most lawyers already do by some other means on a daily basis. Since each user is restricted to five conversions per month of files 200 MB or less in size, the inclusion of Create PDF in the Acrobat.com suite simply is a waste, if not a lure to sell additional products and services. (With no ads or banners, what do you expect from a free program?)
Share. In addition to being able to share an unlimited number of documents from within Buzzword, the Share module provides a portal to upload and share files as an alternative to e-mailing them. (Acrobat.com users are provided with a total of 5 GB of free file storage space.) Uploaded files that you assign as “open access” easily are shared by simply providing the recipients’ e-mail addresses.
Acrobat.com generates a URL for your document that it sends in an e-mail to your collaborators that features a thumbnail image of the document’s first page, as well as the document’s name and author, and the hyperlink to the document. This is a good option for maintaining control of documents when collaborating with those who don’t have, or are resistant to opening, an Acrobat.com account. Additionally, the URL generated by Acrobat.com can be used to embed a document into a Web site or blog. While there are a number of other online services that offer free online storage and file transfer, such as my former favorite, www.yousendit.com, they generally offer only 2 GB of space for free, which is understandable since their business typically is selling storage space.
MyFiles. This is Acrobat.com’s organizer for files that you have uploaded, as well as those that have been shared with you. There is a very cool feature of MyFiles, though, that particularly is appealing — reading a document in 2-page view. It mimics the actual look and feel of reading a printed book, down to the animated turning of pages. The familiar feel makes the usually unpleasant task of reading documents online, at least for me, much more palatable.
Clearly, Acrobat.com (Beta) has a long way to go before it will be an essential tool in the modern law office. However, today it provides a glimpse into what the future has in store for Adobe aficionados (and perhaps even a tool or two that you can start using now). Even in its current beta state, with all of its shortcomings and limitations, Acrobat.com provides tools that can be useful for legal professionals. A desktop version of Acrobat.com, which additionally installs the Adobe Air application, also is available. The desktop version allows more local operations and notifications, and features drag-and-drop file upload.
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