"No man is an island, entire of itself," John Donne wrote around 1624, nearly 400 years before anyone began to think of collaborative computing. Most collaborative efforts have been limited by connectivity to a local-area network, or via a sharing tool such as Novell's Groupware or Lotus Notes. Such solutions required some level of interconnection and a common hardware/software platform.
All that is changing, and perhaps the greatest "change agent" arrived June 2 with Acrobat.com, a project of Adobe Corp. This Web site usage is free for what the firm says is a basic level of service lets you create documents, use a limited set of fonts, designate text in color, add a color background to text, and do some other enhancements. The system works online, in a Web browser, and appears to cross platforms, from Windows to Macintosh, quite nicely.
It all looks very nice and graphical, as might be expected from a graphics-heavy software purveyor such as Adobe. That's nice, since non-island man doesn't live by plain text alone.
The fun begins, however, when you click the small "Share" button in the lower left corner of the screen. Once selected, you can let other people, in your office, college class or bridge club, take a look at your document, annotate it with comments, or even edit and change the text. The online system will store previously "saved" versions of the document, let you know who's seen which version, and show all the comments in a way that's easy to understand. Oh, and it'll check your spelling as you type.
Suddenly, passing around a file folder with a hard-copy printout seems really, really old.
Collaboration tools, as noted, have existed before, but Acrobat.com, which incorporates the Buzzword online word processor, offers a rather nice combination of style and usefulness. Buzzword was originally developed for an educational clientele, an Adobe product manager noted. There are some touches which make this useful for educational settings, including the ability to add endnotes to a document. Footnoting isn't possible right now, however.
Adobe's graphical and imaging sides come through: it's possible to add photographs and other graphical items to a Buzzword document and have the text wrap nicely around these. The finished product can be saved in many formats, including plain text, Microsoft Word and Adobe's PDF style, the latter being a very good way to "lock down" a document and prevent unauthorized changes.
If handled with a bit of skill, Buzzword and Acrobat.com are not just collaboration tools, they can become an ad hoc "content management system" for many small offices and work teams. The free service will let you hold online conferences with two other people; Adobe will likely offer larger conferencing connections and other enhancements with subscription versions, for which pricing hasn't yet been determined.
If you signup online at www.acrobat.com for the service, you'll get 5 Gigabytes of document storage and five free PDF conversions per month. More PDFs will also be available by subscription.
Another nice aspect of Acrobat.com is a way to "embed" a document created with the system in another Web page. If you want, this would allow anyone to see it, although you can put restrictions on such permissions. This moves documents beyond collaboration to online publishing.
The capabilities promised and delivered by Acrobat.com are quite substantial for something that's not only free for the moment, but will, Adobe product manager Mark Grilli said in a phone briefing, always have a free level of service. While the firm hopes to "monetize" such generosity with sales of higher-capacity subscriptions, it's nice that there's a way to test the waters at no cost.
The graphical niceness of Acrobat.com puts other online editing tools, such as Google Docs, to shame. It's a system worth trying, if you don't mind falling in love.