It is quite rare for software to get to the stage where you can say it is truly ubiquitous. In most things there is at least an alternative.
If you do not want to use Microsoft Office you can use Lotus Smartsuite or Sun's Star Office. If you do not want to use Internet Explorer you can go for Netscape Navigator.
In the IFA market, if you do not want to use the Exchange there are an increasing number of alternative IFA portals. And if you are really brave and you do not like Microsoft you can try using Linux.
It is fair to say that in such situations you probably give up some of the features, functionality and/or ease of use to use an alternative product but it is rare to see a situation where there is not some alternative available.
There are few situations I can think of where there is an accepted market leader in an area and no one seems to challenge them but the Adobe Acrobat Reader must be one of these.
If you want to download a document from the web the chances are it will almost certainly be as a portable document file (PDF). This is the format created by Adobe to be read by its Acrobat Reader software.
This is at the heart of most web-based life industry systems where forms can be downloaded or printed. Countless applications distributed by life offices offer to install Acrobat Reader on your system.
This does occasionally create problems from time to time. For example, when Adobe released version 4 of the Acrobat Reader there were major changes in it. Unfortunately, these were significant enough to disable certain other products. Many IFAs had difficulties in using a number of the portals after downloading and installing this software.
Acrobat 5.0 was released in March but I have delayed reviewing it for this column in the light of the problems created by previous version.
Last week, however, all the major portals – Assure Web, Exchange, IFA Engine and Synaptic – confirmed to me that their services are now fully compatible with Acrobat 5. So what does it have to offer?
The main question whe-ther IFAs should be working with the standard, free Acrobat Reader product or would be better upgrading to the full Adobe Acrobat. There are significant reasons why the latter could be the right answer.
One reason for upgrading would be to take advantage of the repurposing features which have been launched with Acrobat 5.0. Frequently, people want to extract segments from documents to use for other purposes.
For example, you might want to quote segments from the FSA's CP98 document to draft procedures to meet the new regulatory requirements.
Obviously, you can retype these but it is far easier to log on to the FSA website, download CP98 into a full version of Acrobat, save this to your local hard drive as a PDF and convert it using Adobe's repurposing tool into a fully editable rich text format (RTF) document which you can edit or extract text from using any word processor.
At the same time, Acrobat gives you the ability to stop people doing exactly this by setting security passwords on your documents so that only you can edit them. I think this is a must.
All too often, companies happily distribute letters in digital formats. It is important to recognise that these are editable documents.
It is also possible to set password protection within Word restricting the ability to open or edit documents but how often do people do this? By converting everything to Acrobat before issuing it digitally outside your organisation and making full use of the security settings you can put important protection in place.
A word of caution though. If you are repurposing other people's documents you do need to be careful not to breach any copyrights.
The latest version of the software allows you to attach electronic sticky notes to documents. This is great when circulating things for review. Such notes can be of any size, have various formats – text balloon, paragraph entry, help box – and can be minimised to give you a clear picture.
Acrobat can also be used as a solution for small businesses to keep scanned copies of paper documents. An increasing number of IFA firms are using imaging systems for storing scanned copies of documents.
With office space at a premium, this makes good financial sense. However, advisers should be wary of systems that store documents in proprietary document formats produced by small software companies rather than tools that are widely available.
If you are committing vast amounts of records to a file format based around a specific application, you may need to have copies of that application installed on one or more of your computers for as long as you want to able to access the document.
It is not difficult to see how this could be anything up to 25 years or more.
In this situation, while no organisation's future can be guaranteed, it probably makes good sense to work with a document format that is globally accepted rather than something that may come from a small software pro-vider, however good.
There are various standard formats that can be used such as Tiff (tagged image file format) but these do not benefit from the level of compression included within the Acrobat product.
Acrobat documents can be stored as relatively small files, making it suitable to send files over the internet. When it comes to storing big numbers of scanned documents this is also a major advantage.
Other products worth considering are Acrobat Messenger and Acrobat Cap-ture. The former is for slig-htly bigger organisations to help with the creation of electronic documents from paper and automate their distribution, the latter allows you to create searchable PDF files for electronic distribution and archiving.
These are both products that I intend to look at in this column in the future.
My view is that all offices should have at least one or more copies of the full Acrobat product.
Expect to pay around £195 on the high street for a full copy of Acrobat 5.0, upgrades from earlier versions of the full product (not just the Reader) are around £95.
Ian McKenna is a consultant and director of the Financial Technology Research Centre, which works for a wide range of industry organisations, life offices and technology companies, including Microsoft, Assuresoft and The Exchange. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com
Tel: 020 7935 2599