Acrobat tests the software high wire

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ADOBE, the US software company, is a familiar name in business desktop publishing. Postscript, its software for laser printers, doubled the company's revenues every year during the mid-1980s. Growth has been less heady recently, however. Last year's sales of dollars 266m were only 16 per cent up on the previous year's dollars 230m.

The problem is that sophisticated font technology is increasingly being built into laser printers. Furthermore, the laser printer market leader, Hewlett Packard, has produced its own industry-standard page description computer language, PCL5.

But according to John Warnock, who founded Adobe in 1982, the growing use of complex laser printed documents in the office is creating a new niche for his company.

Direct computer-to-computer communication of documents is the Holy Grail of computing, he says. Adobe's goal is to achieve it.

Last month it launched Acrobat as the first plank in this strategy. Acrobat enables users to send each other electronic documents created on their computers, regardless of the recipients' hardware platform, operating system or application software. Acrobat can handle complex documents containing multiple colours, photographs, typefaces and drawings.

But will it be the company's lifeline? To find out, Adobe has commissioned market research by the management consultants Touche Ross in addition to its own study.

One finding was that companies want to be able to distribute documents electronically while denying anyone other than the author access to modify them.

Potential users were also enthusiastic about dispensing with paper documents altogether. This would allow frequent updates and enable staff working away from the office access to manuals and catalogues from many different sources.

This is fine in theory, but Acrobat calls for Adobe to break new ground successfully in two different areas.

The first concern is how well Acrobat's technical characteristics complement Adobe's existing skills. Dr Warnock remains sanguine, saying that Adobe is 'uniquely positioned' to develop the product because of its skill base in font-handling and imaging.

The second worry is how to market it. Is it a communications or desktop publishing product? Or will it become the new document standard of the future?

Adobe is happy to take the risks. 'Postscript was also a first,' said Dr Warnock, adding that when it comes to launching new products, 'Adobe knows as much as anyone'.

The industry's history of failed new products highlights how slim that body of knowledge can sometimes be.