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PDF vs. DWF

By Martyn Day, October 29, 2003

The launch of Acrobat 6 appeared to be a pretty straightforward marketing exercise of a new version of Acrobat. Adobe developed PDF as a common, portable document format based on PostScript, allowing documents, from a range of Windows-based applications, to be saved and sent to other computer users, giving the originator the ability to protect the information inside and guarantee the fidelity of the document’s layout.

Over the years, this free Acrobat reader has become a standard installed component for nearly all machines, making the format a de facto standard for corporate documentation the world over. While Adobe is probably better known for its Photoshop and imaging products, the Adobe Acrobat range has grown into a massive industry. With elementary support for AutoCAD DWG and DXF, many engineering and architectural firms have deployed the technology for collating, sending and archiving project documents. It also provided the added benefit of protecting intellectual property, as the original file was not being sent and so could not be loaded into a competitor’s CAD system and pinched.

Acrobat 6 was a major reworking of the Acrobat product, and from the extensive new feature set it’s obvious that Adobe had done a lot of research about where and how Acrobat was being used and what other features its customers wanted. From talking with Adobe contacts, the idea that Acrobat and its PDF format were ‘big’ in
engineering and AEC came as a major surprise. The company’s marketing of the product had been very generic to date and never particularly focused on our design verticals. That said, industries like the building and construction market have adopted PDF as a de facto standard for delivering project information, documents, schedules, drawings and images.

So with this release, it was clear that Adobe had really pulled out the stops to make Acrobat easier to use, by developing an AutoCAD add-in that sits inside of full-blown AutoCAD and offering a higher level of DWG capability. This was in addition to hundreds of other tweaks and major new feature introductions for its creative and non-CAD-related users. The next stage was to run an advertising campaign, hold user meetings and to take Acrobat 6 to shows to demonstrate it to engineers, engineers, architects, lawyers, and graphic designers - the whole gamut of digital content consumers. It seems the response from professional users was very positive to the new release and that pretty much appeared to be that.

Autodesk enters the fray

Enter Autodesk, easily the volume leader in the AEC and MCAD world. It seems that Autodesk has been somewhat taken aback by the amount of money and effort that Adobe has thrown into Acrobat 6 in terms of advertising and marketing in the building and manufacturing markets. Autodesk has its own portable document format, which it calls DWF (pronounced DWIF, it stands for Design Web Format). DWF has been around for almost seven years now and is something that Autodesk built into its AutoCAD and Inventor products simply as an additional feature in the ‘Internet-is-everything’ mid-1990s. Autodesk didn’t particularly market DWF with any particular vigor (if at all) but it did provide a much smaller file to send to someone and view in Autodesk Volo range of viewing tools, should the user explore AutoCAD’s feature set. With the most recent release of AutoCAD 2004, launched this spring, Autodesk refocused on DWF and even altered its viewing tool product range to promote DWF as a better way of communicating design information over the Web.

As DWF is centered on the viewing and printing of drawings, Autodesk decided it would no longer provide a free viewer for AutoCAD’s native DWG file format, but would provide a free viewer for DWF only. The DWF viewing tool was under 5MB as a download, while the previously free Volo viewer was about 27MB in size. Obviously, the new philosophy takes away with one hand (free viewing of DWG) and gives with the other (free DWF viewing), but I have to agree that it’s probably not the best security in the world to be sending your original files to people, unless they need to access or edit the original AutoCAD vector data, as they are part of the design team. While Autodesk introduced AutoCAD 2004 and marketed the upgrade to users and new customers, the enhancements to DWF and the new viewing tool policy were not particularly at the forefront of the total message. Yet to the press, Autodesk’s AutoCAD team was talking of further enhancements to DWF in the coming releases and that Autodesk had big plans for the DWF format.

Empire strikes back

It was then that Adobe’s promotional activities started to hit the mailboxes of AEC and engineering professionals around the globe, many of whom were Autodesk customers. For Adobe to develop Acrobat to sit inside of AutoCAD, I would have guessed that it has an AutoCAD developer’s license and therefore Autodesk would have had some idea of what Adobe was technically going to do - namely, more tightly integrate PDF creation into AutoCAD. What Autodesk probably didn’t expect was such a focused global marketing campaign aimed at promoting Acrobat and PDF to many vertical markets, including CAD, claiming it to be a great tool to communicate engineering information. A fact that many, many users had already discovered and as I pointed out before, many industries have broadly adopted as a standard.

The first reaction from Autodesk was a redoubling of efforts on its DWF offering. DWF hadn’t received much concentrated marketing, as it was an Autodesk feature as opposed to a product line, which would have produced an associated revenue stream, DWF makes no money for Autodesk. So, in reaction to Adobe’s marketing, Autodesk representatives started to contact the press and put across the message that PDF was good for Office documents, but it was far from ideal for the typical engineering customer and DWF was the natural engineering publishing format.

It’s true that DWF has the benefit of being far smaller, being free to create (for Autodesk customers), having higher resolution and in the future will offer stronger design-related capabilities, such as the ability to load them into AutoCAD like Xrefs and include more attribute data, making them more intelligent. There was also the allegation
that Adobe was taking money from other vendors in the market, to support and promote its own product. At that point I had to pinch myself to remind me that this was an Autodesk representative talking!

In many respects this evangelism is certainly too late to stop the broad acceptance of PDF as being the most popular publishing file format. In our own survey of readers, 70 percent opted to email the original native file, the next most popular method was to burn the native file to CD and send it in the post and the third option was to send a PDF. At the time of our survey, in the summer, DWF scored lower than ‘do a screen grab and email the image.’ This isn’t to run down DW’Fs capabilities, but at the start of the summer, it was clear that Autodesk had a mountain range to climb if it was going to see DWF as an accepted competitor or alternative to PDF. In some respects this also seemed like an attempt to ‘shut the door after the horse has bolted.’

Then in subsequent weeks, Autodesk-authored articles started appearing, with such messages as ‘Forget PDF, DWF is the answer,’ culminating in a splash-page broadside against Acrobat on the Autodesk website, displaying an acrobat balancing on a circular symbol with the letters PDF crossed out and another image of a female acrobat appearing to fall off her trapeze! Now, if Autodesk’s previous attempts to counter Adobe’s PDF 6 marketing with positives about DWF hadn’t worked, this move was certainly ‘in your face’ negative marketing. The last time I looked, there were quotes from AutoCAD users praising DWF and one described PDF as being ‘crap’! I have to admit it didn’t look professional, almost puerile, and gave an air of desperation to Autodesk’s counter-messaging. This is a shame, because the core of the anti-PDF message offered some valid about the benefits of DWF. I hope that Autodesk's marketing team, seeing the numbers of users now downloading the DWF tools, doesn't think that it’s the aggressive nature of the advertising that's making users investigate DWF. They should recognize that, more importantly, this is the first concerted marketing that DWF has ever had.

The fight back against Adobe didn’t just include marketing. Acrobat has the ability to incorporate documents from multiple sources - Microsoft Office, Microsoft Project, Web pages, graphic design layouts and AutoCAD. Up until this debacle, DWF was pretty much a ‘one trick pony’; it could create a lightweight version of an AutoCAD DWG file. Autodesk now quickly developed and put on its site, a non-supported DWF creation utility that would act as a Windows print device and capture documents as screen grabs to be included in multi-document DWFs. As it ran as a Windows print device it could capture the output from pretty much any Windows application. The screen grabs are not as good or as compressed as Acrobat’s PostScript-based format, but it’s certainly a ‘tick’ in the ‘multiple application support’ box.

To date, Adobe hasn’t really made any direct retort to Autodesk’s aggressive stance on the DWF vs. PDF debate, although it recently produced a free trial version of the Acrobat PDF creator. In private, the Adobe employees are stunned at Autodesk’s response and appear to have opted to not make matters worse by replying in public, for now.

Autodesk’s competitors have also been watching the marketing and appear to be keener to assist Adobe to better its DWG/CAD support in PDF, than help Autodesk spread the DWF word. Autodesk has been contacting its competitors attempting to aid them in developing DWF capabilities in their products, on the basis that it will be in the ‘interest of their customers’. These competitors are very unlikely to participate in assisting Autodesk to dominate, as they see it, yet another industry file format, as they have had enough trouble reverse engineering Autodesk’s proprietary DWG format. Companies like Bentley for instance are also less inclined to work with Autodesk as every dual platform (MicroStation and AutoCAD) developer it has bought, Autodesk has removed their AutoCAD developer status (while Bentley has still, somehow, managed to support AutoCAD development). Added to that, Bentley recently announced that it would include the ability to write PDFs into its core MicroStation product line.

So what's it all about?

As to which to choose, it all boils down to what you, the user, wants to do. The basic concept of a publishing format is mainly linked to wanting to communicate information in a safe and secure way, perhaps guaranteeing what the recipient is going to see and guaranteeing that the information can not be easily ‘stolen.’ At this level PDF is more than adequate, together with its ability to contain high quality, printable documentation (from other applications) and it’s almost guaranteed that the Acrobat viewer is already installed. The downside is the size of file, which can range from 100KB to multi- megabyte. However, in these days of ADSL, ISDN and cable modems, file size is surely less of an issue.

DWF is smaller, free to produce (for AutoCAD customers), more tightly integrated into AutoCAD and Autodesk products and will soon support 3D models. The file viewer is small to download but not installed on as many seats as Acrobat (which is estimated at over 500 million seats; Autodesk announced recently that there have been 1 million downloads of the DWF Express viewer, at a rate of 7,000 downloads a day). Future plans will also mean DWF files can be imported into AutoCAD sessions and the geometry will be ‘snappable.’ For me this is the key difference. Autodesk appears committed to expand the capability of DWF beyond that of a dumb publishing format to somewhere in between DWG and PDF. In my opinion, this will make DWF a good way for AutoCAD-based engineers to communicate between one another, should they not want to send the original DWG - a kind of ‘DWG lite.’ As Autodesk expands the format’s capabilities, it will probably become too ‘intelligent’ should you want to guarantee the data couldn’t be copied. From what I have seen so far, DWG is actually the biggest competitor to Autodesk’s DWF, not PDF, as more users send native DWGs to each other than PDFs.

It will be interesting to see if Adobe similarly ‘beefs-up’ Acrobat’s DWG to PDF capability, which will possibly make it less dumb and less secure. For Autodesk’s competitors it’s in their interest to make sure that DWF fails to expand beyond the AutoCAD world and therefore in their interest that Adobe’s PDF succeeds in the general enterprise.

Yet again in this industry it’s all about someone ‘owning the format,’ being in charge of the ‘wrapper,’ and having market control, revenue generating or not. It's all about choosing the right tool for the right job.

About the Author

Martyn Day is group editor of MCAD Magazine and AEC Magazine. For more information, visit the CADserver website.

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