More on Adobe, Microsoft and the PDF standard

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I have been doing a small amount of research on the latest Adobe/Microsoft tussle, as brought to my notice by Matt Barton’s blog entry (thanks Matt).

The first thing I found slightly frustrating was trying to obtain suitably unbiased material on the matter. The precise nature of the discussions Adobe and Microsoft had do not seem to be in the public domain anywhere, nor is the precise nature of Adobe’s gripe. The only party “in the know" to have publicised this is Microsoft, and they have obviously put such a large amount of spin on this that their ball is going around in circles. Adobe are remaining tight lipped. Therefore, while the following is based on the digging I have done, a large amount of guesswork has gone into it.

Firstly, I don’t think this is about permission to use the PDF standard. I think this is about what Adobe “views" as a monopolistic, or anti-trust case (note quotation marks). In short, I believe the problem Adobe has is that, if Microsoft places PDF creation natively into MS-Office, Adobe will lose vast amounts of cash. At the moment, anyone who wants PDF creation abilities in MS-Office needs to find a third party product to do so. Although their are free ones around (PDFCreator for example), people probably don’t mind paying a few tens of dollars getting what they would see as the “real thing" from Adobe, especially when they have paid several hundreds of dollars for MS-Office. This would be a good earner for Adobe.

Now imagine what happens when MS provide a way of creating PDFs from Office and include it in the product. Although Adobe may produce a better PDF creator than the one MS is providing, the fact of the matter is a vast section of Office users, who otherwise would, would now not purchase the Adobe product. This is not good news for Adobe’s share holders.

From what I can tell, Adobe’s solution to Microsoft is to ask them to charge extra for the PDF exporter, and not just for that, but also their XPS exporter too (which has nothing to do with Adobe). I don’t think Adobe are asking for any kind of royalty here, they just want to be able to ensure a low-end high-volume market exists for their product, which would disappear otherwise. Microsoft, somewhat understandably, has probably told them, in the politest possible terms, what they can do with that idea., which I think MS is trying to head off, has an included PDF creator. So, why can’t they? Also, I believe only the most unreasonable would not sympathise with that sentiment.

There is nothing I have found that would suggest that Adobe are trying to restrict Microsoft’s ability of creating or reading the PDF standards by denying MS IP rights of it. I don’t believe Adobe could do that even if they wanted to. Adobe, I think, has threatened MS with anti-trust suits on the grounds they (MS) are giving away a product that will destroy their (Adobe’s) business, in the same way MS destroyed Netscape’s business by giving away Internet Explorer. Unlike the Netscape case though, I don’t believe Adobe have a leg to stand on here. I would say Adobe are a victim of advancing IT philosophies, not of an anti-competitive ploy of Microsoft—for once!

My research has drawn me to the conclusion that the PDF standard is just that, and not under threat here. Microsoft is, of course, spinning this to say that they would like to see PDF disappear and XPS replace it. But, the fact of the matter is that PDF is a standard usable by anyone. I think that Adobe are also threatening MS over the native export of XPS in MS-Office too, which Adobe have no rights to, and that the tussle has nothing to do with standards. Adobe, I believe, are on a hiding to nothing, and they are going to lose a lot of street-cred here. I guess that the financial loss they stand to lose here is so great that they thought it was worth the gamble. I would like to go on record saying that I think not only are Adobe going to lose heavily here, but this idiocy is going to cause all of us open-standard advocates headaches. Oh well, C’est la vie.




Terry Hancock's picture

This sounds about right to me. I don't think Adobe can control the PDF standard anymore. Of course, unfortunately, the fact of this happening is likely to make companies think twice about the advantages of creating and/or embracing an open standard. This is one of those cases, where, had Adobe kept the standard locked-up, they would be in a better legal position to pursue their case.

That doesn't change the ethics of the situation, but it does give companies a financial incentive for lock-in, and that is likely to be trouble down the road (but we were already heading there anyway).

I used to think that PDF and Postscript were both closed standards, and that that was one of the "dirty little secrets" about the GNU/Linux world (that we rely so heavily on them), but I was convinced otherwise by advocates of those standards, and had a look at the terms under which the standards documents were made available -- they were indeed "free" in my opinion (although of course, they are both controlled by Adobe rather than by a neutral standards organization, but that's not necessarily a bad thing so long as the control consists of persuasive leadership rather than restrictive domination -- and that's the distinction that the free standards provide).

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Edward Macnaghten's picture


Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.

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