But in doing so, it restricts the numbers of people with the means to edit and manipulate PDF documents. What you might call the 'Acrobat tax' is restricting the format's potential — even though Adobe released the specification as an open standard in 2008, cementing the presence of 'save to PDF' functionality in many applications, including Microsoft Office and Google Chrome.
That opens opportunities for challengers, including Nitro, a startup founded in Australia in 2005. It claims its significantly lower priced PDF authoring product is now Acrobat's largest competitor, with 8 million users and 400,000 business customers worldwide.
Founded in Melbourne, Australia, in 2005, the company moved its headquarters to San Francisco in 2009 and has a development team in Slovakia. It recently opened its EMEA office in Dublin, the prelude to my meeting last week in London with founder and CEO Sam Chandler, a 32-year-old entrepreneur for whom Nitro is his third venture (he launched his first aged 16).
The key to Nitro's rapid growth is a determination to give businesses a tool to use PDF documents as a platform for enterprise-wide teamwork, Chandler told me:
"Our view was the majority of people around the world were just viewing documents rather than collaborating with them."
The high licensing cost in particular was preventing widespread deployment, which Nitro encourages with bulk discounts for enterprise-wide licensing:
"We completely replace Acrobat and we're usually also being deployed to everyone else ... to get to the entire organization with those capabilities."
Since October last year, Nitro has added a new capability that helps those users move their PDF documents into the cloud and collaborate on them there. This opens up new ways of working, said Chandler:
"Our view is that PDFs are great but even better is smart documents in the browser.
"There's no one else out there that has both ends covered in the way that we do ... We have that existing way you work as well as the new way."
Nitro's staple product is a desktop application that converts documents between PDF and common document formats including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. It makes PDF files editable — including scanned documents using OCR technology — and also supports digital signatures.
Last October, the company added Nitro Cloud, an online service that provides two-way conversion and PDF editing, collaboration features such as version and usage tracking, sharing, commenting and annotating, as well as e-signing.
The launch of Nitro Cloud marks the beginning of a 'land-and-expand' strategy for the vendor. As well as its own document store, the service also connects to Dropbox and Salesforce.com, with support for others to follow. Chandler explained:
"We want Nitro to be the place for sharing. We have to be storage agnostic, we want to be document agnostic. It shouldn't matter where you create and where you store."
Early signs are promising, with new and existing customers currently uploading around 100,000 documents to Nitro Cloud every business day, he said.
Although the majority of Nitro's customers are individual and small business buyers, it also claims nearly three-quarters of the Fortune 500. About half its users are in the US but a majority of its largest customers are in Europe, including the European Parliament, food giant Nestle, tire maker Continental and several large law firms.
Chandler believes Nitro can help its customers transition from traditional, paper-based processes to a more digital, cloud-native way of working:
"What we call the smart way is smart documents in the browser where you can track everything."
We discussed some of the absurdities of modern business life, such as the way people email PDF forms to each other which they then print out, sign — and then scan back into the computer to return via email. It was to put an end to such inefficient practices that Nitro included support for e-signing in its products.
He noted that e-signature services such as DocuSign have to work separately from the collaboration processes, whereas Nitro Cloud allows the participants to mark up the document and collaboratively edit before signature: "It's this idea that collaboration should include signing."
Many business practices have their origins in paper-based processes that have subsequently been converted to digital but otherwise remain little changed. To make the most of today's digitally connected business environment, enterprises must fundamentally overhaul those outdated processes. The big challenge they face is working out how to do so without massive disruption to existing processes.
To me, that is the huge opportunity that lies before Nitro: its ability to work with the documents and processes enterprises currently use, convert them to the PDF standard and then put them in the cloud. Chandler is well aware of this potential:
"The majority of documents begin on the desktop. We're moving to a future when documents get born in the cloud."
Definitely one to watch.
Disclosure: Salesforce.com is a diginomica premier partner.
Image credits: Man with papers © Tom Wang - Fotolia.com; Sam Chandler portrait courtesy of Nitro