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By Published on .

ONE OF THE PROBLEMS THAT HAS LONG prevented desktop computing from living up to its full potential (let alone its hype) has been the stubborn incompatibility of different "platforms," or system types. It's more than just the fact that there are three proprietary operating systems (Mac, DOS and UNIX) out there only barely speaking to one another; each of them in turn begets a huge host of peripheral cards, boards and assorted outboard equipment that often makes attempts at cross-platform communication even more impractical.

Thus, sadly, has it always been. But the picture is beginning to brighten. On one much publicized front, there's the PowerPC alliance of IBM, Motorola and Apple, whose progeny will be (and, to some extent, already are) "bilingual," at least between DOS and Mac systems. On a less heralded, but perhaps even more significant front are the efforts of the company that seems long ago to have taken on as a holy mission the flattening of systemic differences: Adobe.

One of our clients is a very large user of nationwide newspaper advertising, so we were a natural prospect for a group of enterprising people at Associated Press who have recently developed something they call AP Adsend. It works like this: We put together a newspaper ad in our normal way, i.e., on a Macintosh. When the ad is completed and blessed by all relevant parties, we save it as a file, fill out an onscreen delivery ticket specifying which newspapers are to run it and when, then fire the whole thing in compressed form down a phone line to AP. In as little as one hour, they will transmit it directly to the designated paper. The ad pops up on the newspaper's computer exactly as it appeared on ours. All that's left is for them to position it into the issue called for by the media plan. Nobody has to make (or pay for) film. Nobody has to call (or sweat) an overnight delivery service. Nobody has to worry that someone, somewhere, at some point along the road from our screen to the newspaper's presses will fail, foul up or otherwise wreak havoc on the ad. To a heavy newspaper advertiser, this is a very, very big deal.

But how, the astute reader will ask, do they do it? How can they possibly know that Farago's system is compatible with that at the Denver Post or the Walla Walla Chronicle? And if they're not compatible, how can AP possibly reconcile the two systems? The answer is, they can't. They don't have to, Adobe Acrobat does it for them. Acrobat was unveiled a couple of years ago as the pioneer product in cross-platform document distribution. It never became the sort of household name that Illustrator or PhotoShop have, but what it did do was get grabbed up quickly by other big companies and software developers and incorporated into dozens of value-added products and services like AP Adsend. Acrobat is, in any case, ingenious, and like most ingenious leaps in the computer field, it is based on a very simple premise-namely, that if we all stand around waiting for the transparent interoperability of hardware to happen, we'll be in our drooling dotage before it finally comes to pass. Far better, said Adobe, to do what we did so successfully with PostScript, the page-description language: let the software do the work. The wonder of PostScript is that it manages to use code to create a common denominator sufficiently low to be usable by any sort of system. So, for instance, when you type the letter Z on your keyboard, the Z is written at the software level, irrespective of the precise hardware configuration of your system, before being translated up to your screen or printer as a visual symbol. Hence PostScript is described as device independent.

Similarly, Acrobat software has been written to identify the operating system and creative software used to build a document on one platform, identify the platform waiting to receive it at the other end, then instantaneously render the document readable and usable by the latter-that is, to make the document itself device independent. In an application like AP's, Acrobat not only sends the image (color or b&w) and the type and the page layout down the pipe, it also sends the fonts necessary to recreate it on the other end. The entire "kit" travels in a potent little bundle called a portable document format, or PDF file.

Obviously this sort of technology has uses far beyond the mere transmission of newspaper ads; it affords access to entire archives of information that will come up onscreen fully intact. Thus, the diagram showing precisely how to adjust the main aspirator on a multiflummoxing widget will accompany the written instructions to your screen. The browsing, searching and reading possibilities are pretty much endless.

And that's just for starters. What we have in Acrobat is an enormous step in the direction of full document independence, where software creates a big, empty envelope capable of being filled with just about anything-then mailed. And what that presages is a hell of a lot. Take video, for instance. Video as a desktop computing medium has traditionally lagged far behind still images, but it has eventually arrived. (Video editing on a PC-a pipe dream 10 years ago, a possibility only for those with $100,000 systems as recently as five years ago, yet relatively cheap and commonplace today-is a perfect example.)

Why, then, if Acrobat's technology can already erase the hardware obstacles to transmission of conventional images, shouldn't similar technologies grease the skids for video a year or five years hence? Why not indeed? The stickiest wicket in this otherwise lovely scenario, however, is bandwidth. The question is how to put a big enough transmission line down everywhere to handle the sending and receipt of the huge data files that video demands, and do it in anything like real time. But history is on the side of the line layers because content-or rather the cost-efficient availability of content-has always inspired development of the transmission technologies necessary to move it.

And then the dam will burst. With cross-platform interoperability and sufficient bandwidth for efficient video/audio/text transmission, a client will be able to send its commercial directly to the individual online service subscriber who elects at that moment to summon it up.

In the meantime, the first applications are starting to dribble forth. Be prepared for plenty more. The humorist Robert Benchley liked to invoke the curse: "May all your children be acrobats." Well, it seems that all our

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