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Summary:

Like it or not, PDF has become the ubiquitous format for cross-platform file distribution. Who thinks about whether or not the person on the other end has the right software to view the file when you send a colleague a PDF file? Web services like Google […]

Like it or not, PDF has become the ubiquitous format for cross-platform file distribution. Who thinks about whether or not the person on the other end has the right software to view the file when you send a colleague a PDF file? Web services like Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Zoho and Writeboard are wonderful when you want to share and collaborate on text documents with colleagues. But what about more complicated layouts coming out of applications like QuarkXPress or InDesign?

The organization I work for uses Adobe Acrobat 8′s new server-based commenting and review features to build and edit our quarterly newsletter. Our only connection to each other is through the Internet, and we don’t use an Exchange/SharePoint server. Originally intended for co-workers who connect to each other via a LAN, Acrobat 8′s features have been expanded to cover the collaboration needs of web workers through a WebDAV server.

While there some bugs and unnecessary bulk in Adobe Acrobat, the advantage of using the software to manage your reviews is only one member of your team needs the full version of Acrobat. Everyone else simply needs the free version of Adobe Reader which they probably already have.

Instead of the designer getting text instructions like “…in paragraph 3, sentence two, change the word ‘there’ to ‘their.’ Move the picture on page 5 to the left column and switch the headline on page 6 with the one on page 2….” the editor can highlight the necessary changes right in their copy of the PDF file and make the edits on the layout without messing with the original file.

There are two main ways to share a PDF file for review in Acrobat:

Email review – For web workers, this was the only choice in previous versions of Acrobat. You enable a PDF file for commenting and that file is sent to the reviewer(s) as an attachment in an email message. They use a commenting toolbar in Adobe Acrobat or Reader to edit text, add coments, digitally “sign” the document and send other messages back to the person who originated the review via email. This works fine, but the only person who sees the comments is that person who initiated the review. If you send a file out to 6 people, you receive 6 edited versions back…usually all pointing out the same typo.

Shared review – Multiple reviewers can work on the same document, seeing the comments made by everyone else. By the time the designer is ready to make the requested changes, the file has incorporated everyone’s feedback without the designer worrying about contradicting information.

Acrobat 8 opens up the shared review features for the web worker, since the comment layer can now be saved on a regular WebDAV drive instead of only a network folder/drive or Exchange server. When you open the locally saved PDF file, Acrobat automatically connects to the server and pulls down the comments already published by others.

Set up is easy. Simply point Acrobat to your WebDAV drive. Mac OS X users with .Mac accounts already have a WebDAV server available to them, but keep in mind that all reviewers need read/write access to the drive so if you want to keep areas of your iDisk private this isn’t a good choice. (note: read this article for information on setting up your iDisk’s public folder for use in Acrobat shared reviews) We purchased a 25 GB Bingo Disk account for only $44 per year (after using the promotional code “gigaom”) which is more than enough room for a bunch of .xml comment files. WebDAV disks are easily accessible as a network drive in both Mac OS X and Windows XP, another advantage for cross-platform collaborators.

Select “Send for Shared Review…” from the Comments menu in Acrobat 8 and follow the simple wizard. Configuring the WebDAV disk for shared reviews is a one-time step that is remembered on futured reviews. Make sure your colleagues know the username/password to get on the disk and send them the marked “Review” file that Acrobat creates via email. They open it in the free Reader program, enter the server username and password you provided (one-time), make their corrections and notes and “Publish” those comments back to the server. Since you’re only publishing a small comments file and not the entire PDF, it’s very fast.

Each time the locally saved PDF file is opened, it connects back to the server for the latest comments from others. Reviewers can ask each other questions within the file, debate points, etc. The person who has the final say digitally “signs” the layout and at that point the designer can get to work making the changes, checking comments off as she goes to signify that they have been done without the hassle of culling through 30 different email attachments.

The process is seamless and much improved over commenting/review in Acrobat 7. A blue highlight in the layout around comments selected in the comment list is a huge improvement. There’s nothing like seeing a comment in the list to remove a period and having no idea where in the document that extra period is without zooming in real close and hunting for it.

It’s not without its drawbacks. Aside from the $300 price tag for Acrobat 8 Standard ($99 upgrade, $400 for the Professional version that adds form recognition and other features), Adobe Reader is bloated enough without the software adding yet another process and startup file to the mix. Make sure to tell your reviewers that they can quit this always-running process at any time when they are not actively reviewing a file.

Bottom line: If you collaborate on layouts with a remote team and have the budget for at least one copy of the full version, Adobe Acrobat 8 can be a great tool for editing and reviewing documents regardless of the platform or network setup.

  1. I got a copy of Acrobat Pro (academic version) a few years back through school. Ever since I have had numerous colleagues, friends, and family members ask me to convert their documents to PDF. Acrobat is definitely a must have for any company whether it be fortune 500 or mom and pop.

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