Acrobat adds security and flexibility to paperless office

In this edition of David Strom's Security Tool Shed, David analyzes Acrobat 5.0.

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Acrobat adds security and flexibility to paperless office
By David Strom

Category: Electronic documents
Name of tool: Acrobat 5.0
Company name: Adobe Systems Inc.
Price: $249
URL: www.adobe.com
Windows platforms supported: 98, NT (with at least SP5), 2000, Me
Quick description: Create electronic documents with various security options that can be viewed by just about anyone.

Strom-meter:
**** = Very cool, very useful

Key features:

Pros:
Extremely easy and straightforward to use.
Variety of security options to restrict printing or editing documents.
Defacto document viewing standard on various Web sites.

Cons:
Digital signing process is somewhat cumbersome.

Description:
Your corporation is sinking in paper: forms, documents, spreadsheets and what have you. And rather than make yet another paper copy, you'd like to take this information -- which after all first existed as some computer file -- and package it up so that it can be distributed via e-mail and easily viewed by anyone with minimal software. Chances are, you have probably come across Adobe Acrobat's software, because that is what it does.

Most of us are probably familiar with the free Acrobat reader, which works in conjunction with our Web browsers or as a standalone application. But the more interesting product is the full Acrobat software, which also allows you to create electronic documents. The Acrobat viewer (or Reader, as Adobe calls it) is free. The full Acrobat software costs $249 and is worth looking into.

I have become fonder of Acrobat over the years, and now I actually recommend it for many corporate situations, particularly in light of the latest Version 5.0 security features. Originally, Acrobat was designed to be a portable document format. Indeed, the files it creates are called PDFs for exactly that reason. These PDFs can be viewed in a wide array of computer operating systems and browsers, so wide in fact that I would venture the vast majority of computers connected to the Internet today have this ability.

The original notion behind the PDF format was to preserve everything about a document that you could, so that the file would look exactly like it came from the original application that created it. Everyone -- no matter whether they were on Windows, Mac, or Unix -- could see the exact same thing. This means that colors, embedded images, column layouts and everything else looks the same when someone views the PDF as it did when the person who put this together in their original software. My book publisher, for example, sends me PDFs of my page proofs, because he knows that I can see exactly how my book is going to look, down to that pesky comma at the end of the next-to-last line.

The full Acrobat version is available for both Mac and Windows and is what you use to create your PDFs. Creating PDFs can't be any easier: you can use a print driver from Word (or any other Windows application for that matter) to create the file, and then do a little bit of cleaning up with the Acrobat program itself. You can also grab Web pages and images from a wide variety of file formats and bring them into your PDF documents.

Acrobat has a very solid publishing feel to it, as you would expect since Adobe is now in the eBook business. The company now owns Glassbook (an eBook hardware vendor that coincidentally used the PDF format for its electronic books). You can manipulate the document to create the look and style that you desire if you aren't satisfied with the original version that came from Word, Excel, or wherever.

Acrobat V5 adds the ability to digitally self-sign your document, so that others can verify it came from you or track the changes that have been made. It is a pretty neat system although a bit cumbersome; you have to send your correspondents your digital signature files, and they have to be running V5 of the software. Still, it isn't as difficult as manipulating other digital certificates such as the X.509 ones that are part of the Secure MIME features of Outlook et al. You could use this feature as a means of tracking who reads and approves your document as it is passed up (or down) the corporate chain of command, for example.

Version 5 also adds the ability to incorporate various restrictions on your PDFs: You can prevent others from copying your content, from printing or editing the file and a few other niceties in the security department, such as password-protecting your file so that only those who know the password can open it to begin with. You can even restrict users from cutting and pasting text from the document to other applications, which might make it more difficult for the corporate plagiarists among you. To my perspective, this adds a layer of granularity and control that enterprise users will appreciate since they can tailor their documents to exactly the kinds of uses that they'd like, and do so in a way that is even better than making printed copies of the documents themselves.

While the completely paperless office is about as likely as the paperless bathroom, Acrobat is a great tool. Its price may be a bit high for multiple corporate users, but the software is well worth investigating if you are trying to do more with less paper and don't want to give up the flexibility that a printed document provides.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful.
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool.
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

About the author:
David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on Web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him e-mail at mailto:david@strom.com.

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Related book

LAN Times Guide to Security and Data Integrity
By Marc Farley, Matthew F. Arnett and Tom Stearns
Publisher: Osborne
ISBN/CODE: 0078821665
Cover Type: Soft Cover
Pages: 316
Published: May 1996
Summary:
Safeguard data from theft, disaster and more! Protect your network from hackers, system failures and natural disasters with the "LAN TIMES Guide to Security and Data Integrity." This hands-on guide gives you everything you need to keep your company's data both secure and available to the right people. You'll discover areas of risk you might not have noticed and see how to ensure that your data is never altered, lost, or sabotaged -- especially in this age of data sharing. Marc Farley, Tom Stearns and Jeffrey Hsu thoroughly prep you on today's most dependable technologies for guarding your network's data, including: backup and recovery systems and techniques; archiving methods; data replication; hierarchical storage management; user authentication; encryption; public network firewalls; disaster recovery; password management; and much more!


This was first published in August 2001
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