Adobe alternatives make PDF easier, cheaper

I admitted on Saturday that there were indeed some good uses for the PDF. If, after analyzing the situation, PDF seems like the right tool for the job, here are some ways to make its use less painless and less expensive.

Adobe has two products related to PDF use and creation. Adobe Acrobat Reader is the free product that it makes available to everyone on all platforms to view PDF documents. Adobe Acrobat is the program that creates PDF files. As of the time of this writing, Adobe Acrobat Professional 9 for Windows is $419.99 on

Adobe Acrobat Reader alternatives

Why would I advocate the use of one free program over another? Bloat. Adobe’s Acrobat Reader takes eons to load, making you wait to view the content that you realized wasn’t available any other way causing you to begrudgingly click the PDF link.  Adobe Reader’s install size is nearly 20 MB. There are two free programs that are much smaller and much faster.

Foxit Reader-1

Image by PiPiWa via Flickr

Foxit Reader
Foxit Reader is the best Acrobat Reader alternative I’ve seen. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and haven’t found an issue with it. It’s only 2.55 MB to download, which makes you wonder what Adobe is doing with their 20 MB. Occasionally, I’ve found that there are some PDFs that require an add-on to Foxit in order to view them properly, so each time I install it I take care to install the extra image decoders from the built-in update system. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Click Help then click Check for updates now…
  2. Select the “JPEG2000 and JBIG2 Image Decoders” option
  3. Click Add then click Install

The update checker will also allow you to install newer versions of the software when they are released.

Sumatra PDF

Image via Wikipedia

Sumatra PDF
For enthusiasts who are willing to sacrifice a few features for blazing fast speed of launch and viewing, Sumatra PDF is the answer. The installation file is just under 1 MB and the program itself has only a single executable file with no dependencies, so you can run it from a USB key if you’re traveling. If all you’re doing is viewing PDFs, you can save a few seconds by using Sumatra for normal viewing and falling back to Foxit if you come a cross a file that Sumatra can’t render or you need to complete the evil PDF forms.

Adobe Acrobat alternatives

$419 is a lot of money. It’s really a lot for software, and when it’s for software that simply creates a document based on an open specification and there are free alternatives that do the same thing, it begs the question why anyone would actually purchase that software.

I started using PDFCreator back in the days of Windows XP. It served me well. It installs as a printer and whenever you want to create a PDF from any application, simply tell that application to print and select PDFCreator as your printer. A dialog box will then open, asking you where you want the file to be saved. It’s as simple as that. The latest version was just released last Friday, and boasts full Vista support.

CutePDF Writer
When Windows Vista was first released, PDFCreator didn’t support it. I needed a free, Vista-capable PDF creation program and found it in CutePDF. I’ve been using CutePDF for Vista since Vista came out and have been quite satisfied with it. It functions nearly identically to PDFCreator. While I haven’t had any problems with it, it’s free but not open source like PDFCreator, so I’m probably going to migrate back to PDFCreator now that it fully supports Vista.

Other PDF tools

Sometimes it’s necessary to make changes to a PDF when the source files aren’t available. Some people believe that PDF is a good choice when you don’t want the user to be able to edit the file. The truth is that because it’s an open standard, there really isn’t a way to effectively lock it down to prevent users from editing PDFs.

PDF Split and Merge
pdfsam is a program that will allow you to work with PDFs on the page level, allowing you to insert a page from one PDF between two pages on another, or join two smaller PDFs into one large PDF.

Lifehacker has a recent article about various PDF programs, and while their attitude towards PDFs is a little more positive than mine, the article does a good job listing programs and services that let you do neat things to PDF files.
I’ve covered some of the free and open source PDF tools here, and while there are several others I’ve probably missed, there are many, many commercial tools that are quite inexpensive compared to Acrobat. There are also web-based services that can do the same.

Have you had problems with one of the tools mentioned above? Have you found a task that can only be done with Adobe’s products? Let me know in the comments.

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PDF should be optional on web

Latest PDF File Icon

Image via Wikipedia

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format created by Adobe in 1993. As of July 1, 2008, it’s an ISO standard, which means that the format is open and published so that anyone can create it or use it.

There are many misconceptions about the proper use of PDFs, and today I’m going to try to explain how to properly use PDFs on the Internet. Monday I’ll give a couple of faster, easier alternatives to Adobe’s bloated Reader product and discuss some tools to create PDFs without having to use Adobe’s obscenely expensive Acrobat product.

The advantage that PDF has over other file formats is that it’s a good way to represent printed material exactly as the designer intended it. This advantage makes it good to use for contracts and brochures where the user doesn’t need to change the content and is willing to jump through some extra hoops to view the content in a layout that approximates the printed page. It’s a great format for designers to send to printers because it ensures that the content is displayed exactly as the designer intended.

The disadvantage that PDF has is on the Internet. The Internet isn’t a format that is supposed to resemble the printed page. Because the PDF format – for good reason – isn’t supported by any browser, the user must use a browser plug-in to view the content, souring the browsing experience. For this reason, the use of PDFs on websites should be limited to an optional content delivery mechanism.

An example of a very bad use of PDF is for a website selling real estate. The designer used PDF to send the property information document to the printer. The PDF is uploaded to the website and a link is placed on a sparse page that says “download property information document” for information about this property. This breaks the first rule of accessible website design, which is don’t force the user to use a plug-in or add-on to view content. Most browsers with the plug-in installed open the page in a new tab, breaking another first rule of web design which is don’t open new tabs or windows. Search engines index PDFs, but if you click on a search result that is a PDF you’ll be taken straight to the PDF which lacks a navigational system for the user to get to your main website.

An example of a very good use of PDF is for the same website to have every piece of information within the property document delivered as valid XHTML / CSS on the website page with an optional download for users who want to physically print the information about the property. In this case, the user can browse the property information at browser speeds rather than having to wait for and be confused by the loading of a plugin. Even the example property contracts should be first delivered on the website and also made available as PDF for users who want that method as an option.

The very best use of PDF is to not use it at all, delivering the content by XHTML and the layout by two style sheets, one CSS for the screen and one print style sheet, so that the website looks one way on the screen but when the website is printed it looks like the property information document. This is a more advanced website design technique that I’ll try to cover later.

To summarize, PDF has its uses. Just remember that as a content delivery system on the Internet it falls short.

Posted in design, websites | Tagged , , , , , , , , |

phpList provides free and easy bulk email list management

One of the best marketing techniques for auctioneers and everyone else who is running a business is proper management of an email list. Keeping a list of emails in Excel and copying that list into the BCC field of Outlook does NOT count.

There are rules put in place due to the proliferation of spam. The CAN-SPAM Act has a couple of take-aways.

  • You can’t spoof the from address
  • You can’t use misleading subject lines
  • You must identify your email as a solicitation
  • You have to provide a means of opt-out

Every opportunity should be taken to capture customers’ or prospective customers’ email addresses at every point of contact.

Every time you register someone at an auction, you should have a form on the part of the bid card that you keep that asks him/her for an email address with a check box to opt in to your email list. Every contract you sign with a seller should have a line for email address. You never know when the person who signs up to sell coins will be the person who sees the email about the real estate you’re selling. Always send your emails to everyone on your list. Segmenting your list into coins, real estate, or antiques only means that you’re not exposing your merchandise to as many prospective buyers as possible.

Every web page should have either a subscription form or a link to a page where the customer can subscribe. I’m an advocate of placing the subscription form directly on the front page of your site. It’s not more important than your auction list – which is why people come to your site – but there’s usually a way to put a small form on the sidebar or in the header.

What happens when the user clicks submit? The easiest system to build is simply a form that emails you the contents of the user’s input. This system requires manual storage of the addresses. Remember the last of the four take-aways from the CAN-SPAM Act? Providing an opt-out means allowing the user to remove himself/herself from your email list. If you store your email list in a spreadsheet and someone requests an opt-out, you go and remove that entry. Should that person’s name be added again by accident, you could get into some trouble by sending to that person after the opt-out has been requested.

A far better solution is for that email subscription form submission to store the email address, name and whatever other fields you require in a database. That way, everything is automated and when someone requests to opt-out, the entry is flagged as unsubscribed but not deleted. This prevents the user from being resubscribed by accident in the future. This system is much more difficult, and would require several hours to build the storage system, to say nothing of the time required to build a system to automate the sending of the emails.

Logo for phpListThis is where the open source and free phpList comes to the rescue. It’s a web script that runs on your server once it’s installed and manages all of the above issues for you. It’s as easy to use as any desktop application, but it’s web-based so you don’t have any software to install on your computer. They’ll even install it for you if you don’t have a geek who can take the three minutes to install it or if you don’t have a hosting provider that automates the process.

Once the software is installed, you simply login with your user name and password like you’d login to your webmail. You can manage lists, upload email addresses, export your list – anything you can think of they’ve included. You can view a live demo to see what it looks like and explore all the features it offers.

Other products frequently used by auctioneers include AuctionServices’s IBEAM and ConstantContact. Neither service is free and neither runs on your own server. If you’re hosted by AuctionServices or if you don’t have the ability to let someone install a program on your server, one of these may be a better choice for your situation than phpList.

phpList is the most robust and feature rich email package I’ve seen. It offers complete subscription and unsubscription page customization, unlimited lists, unlimited sizes, HTML or text emails – all for the cost of having someone spend a few minutes to install the script.

Do you use something other than the products mentioned above? Have you had problems with phpList? Have you figured out how to scale Outlook or another email client so that it’s effective above 100 emails? Let me know in the comments.

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Auction Podcast Episode 3 – Tech Roundup 1

You’re listening to the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast for the week of 15 September 2008. AuctioneerTech – Technology, auctions and auctioneers – auction tech for the auction industry.

Hello and welcome to the third episode of the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast, tech roundup one. We’re going to cover some of the previous two weeks’ stories from We’ll talk about Google Chrome, OpenOffice 3, Secunia, new products from Apple and finish by trying to explain what Twitter is and how to use it.

There’s been a lot of activity over the last two weeks in the industry regarding Google’s release of it’s entry into the new browser wars, Google Chrome. You may remember the last browser wars of the late 1990s with websites claiming to be best viewed in one web browser or another. A browser is simply a program that you use to browse web pages. Perhaps you remember the annoying Netscape Now! Buttons. Microsoft won the browser war, pushing the now defunct Netscape Navigator out of the way with its Internet Explorer product. With Netscape out of the way, Microsoft has ruled the web for many years. There are many other browsers like Epiphany, Opera, Galleon and Konquerer, but recently Mozilla’s Firefox browser has been taking market share away from Microsoft, and Apple released its Safari browser on Windows in 2007 and captured some of its fans who had been relegated to the Windows platform for one reason or another. Google’s entry into the new war was unexpected, but in retrospect not very surprising.

Chrome has a new Javascript engine called V8 so it’s fast, and it’s running on Webkit so it’s pretty. I’ve been playing with it for the last two weeks,and I like how it puts the tabs in line with the minimize / maximize / close buttons at the very top – I’ve wanted this in a browser for years. They have a long way to go to enable other features, but it’s blazing fast and minimalistic, which are two big pluses in my book.  It puts Firefox to shame in the coolness category, and while it has a ways to catch up when it comes to community and available plugins, it’s still faster and sexier and what I’ll be using until Microsoft puts Internet Explorer 8 on the ground.

My recent experiences with Chrome are common, but there are auctioneers and other users who claim that Chrome is slow. While I haven’t noticed this with a new instance of Chrome, when I load several tabs I have noticed that it seems to use a fair amount of memory. Some users have noted that Chrome is slow rendering PDFs and running Java.

Speaking of Java, my friend and fellow auctioneer Don Hamit pointed out to me at the KAA auctioneer contest on Wednesday that Chrome doesn’t work with the recently-funded real-time Internet bidding platform Proxibid. I was able to get the Proxibid Bidder App to run in Chrome on XP and Vista. Here’s how to get it, and other Java applications, to run on Chrome.

First of all, Java is a browser add-on that functions as a virtual machine. It’s a way for programmers to write code for an interpreted environment which in turn can be installed on multiple devices, operating systems and browsers. Rather than writing specific code for IE on Windows and then starting from scratch to write code on Safari on Mac, a programmer can choose to write an application in Java and have it run in the Java environment on both platforms.

As of the recording of this podcast, Chrome doesn’t work yet with any current version of Java. In order to get Java applications to run on Chrome, you have to download a pre-release, or beta, version of Java called Java SE 6 update 10 release candidate. There’s a link to this update on

Once you’ve downloaded and installed it, the only other difference between Chrome and other browsers I’ve used is that Chrome treats the Java .jnlp file as a download rather than something that can be automatically executed. That only means that you have to open the file once it’s downloaded. I was able to simply click on the file at the bottom of the screen in Chrome to get it to run in XP. In Vista I had to click the arrow to bring up the menu and then select ‘run’.

September 5 saw the release of the first release candidate of OpenOffice version 3, the free and open source alternative to Microsoft Office.

The last thing an auctioneer needs when starting out or outfitting employees or workstations with new computers is to have to pay upwards of $200 for a copy of a piece of software when a clearly sufficient and arguably superior alternative is available.

OpenOffice includes Writer and Calc, alternatives to Word and Excel, respectively. Their functionality is above the basic needs of word processing and number crunching. We’ve been using Calc for inventory uploads for quite some time. The only piece of Writer that we’ve had trouble with is the mail-merge. For that process, we still have to dust off a copy of Microsoft Word.

Version 3 of OpenOffice brings a visual refresh, not to mention full-on support of Microsoft Office 2007 OOXML file formats – you know, those annoying .docx and .xlsx formats that everyone complains about when you MS Office 2007 users forget to use save-as before you email. is a great alternative to Microsoft Office. It’s like different brands of cars. The gear-shift may be in a different place, but a Ford and a Chevrolet both go forwards and backwards at about the same speed. If you’ve driven a Ford all your life, you may feel a little different for the first hundred miles in your Chevrolet, but it’ll take you where you want to go. is open source and runs on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Let’s turn now to security. The tubes are full of baddies. It’s not enough anymore to simply install an antivirus package and pay your yearly virus tax. Antivirus is becoming outdated. Granted, it’s still a requirement for all but the most elite computer users, but in the time of the always-on Internet connection we need to protect ourselves against all kinds of attack vectors. An attack vector is merely a means by which someone or some automated program can compromise and, in the worst cases, gain access to an innocent user’s computer or network.

As today’s software becomes larger and as release cycles become shorter, there are security holes in everyday packages like browsers such as IE, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome; add-ons like Flash, PDF readers, Java machines; applications like OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, Picasa and even the operating system itself like Linux, OSX or Windows.

Maintaining a constant watch over all of the programs that you may or may not even know you have installed can be a daunting task. Luckily, for the majority of you who are Windows users, a product called Secunia can help put your mind to rest.

Secunia offers three levels of protection. The first level, which is a no-brainer for everyone, is a free web scan. Simply launch your Java-enabled browser and it will scan 70 common programs to be sure they’re all up to date. If it finds a program that’s not the most current version, it lists it and provides links to explanations of the vulnerabilities in that older version. I was not able to get the program to run under Chrome. Since Chrome requires the latest Java 6 update 10 release candidate, it’s not all that surprising that it doesn’t support everything we throw at it. Just run Secunia’s online scan in IE for now to check your system.

The second level of protection is their PSI – Personal Software Inspector. The PSI is a free-for-personal-use application you download and install. It scans for over 6,900 possible programs to be sure all the software on your computer is up-to-date.

The third level of protection is for business and is called the NSI – Network Software Inspector. It makes it easy to maintain the same level of updates as the PSI but on multiple-system scale. It costs $30 per system per year.

Now I pride myself on keeping my software, nearly all of which is open-source, up to date. I have yet to run a scan on a machine where Secunia didn’t tell me at least one package was vulnerable. I’ll admit the business solution is a little steep for the average business, but the web scan is something that you should do right now and once every month. It’s free and crazy-easy and is one more asset in the responsible-computing tool belt.

Apple on Tuesday released new versions of their iTunes software as well as updated versions of iPods. This release was hardly surprising and, as predicted, there wasn’t anything unexpected or widely diverging from the rumors that had been floating around the Internet.

The take-aways are really fewer than I had expected. iTunes 8 is out and it’s cool. It seems to combine features found in web radio stations like Pandora and where it will predict what you would like and automatically associates similar styles of music into playlists. They call this feature the ‘genius’ feature.

The Nano and Touch have both received a redesign, both in shape and price. The iPod Touch and iPhone have a software update that will be made available on Friday. That software update is free for users of the 2.0 software.

The Nano now has an accelerometer, like the iPhone and iPod touch. That’s the part that can tell which way is up so it can adjust the screen orientation based on the way you hold it. The Nano also has a microphone on the back. I don’t know if there is a time or size limit on the recordings, but at $199 for 16GB version, it would make a high quality voice recorder for auctioneers to use to catalog merchandise or to record auctions.

Apple also announced a new version of their iPod Touch. The Touch is essentially an iPhone without the phone, camera and GPS. The iPod Touch now has a speaker. That’s probably the biggest feature that was lacking from it. We’ve been using my girlfriend’s Touch as a timer when cooking, and it doesn’t work very well when you can’t hear it ding.

I ordered a Touch on Thursday, paying the extra $16 for next-day shipping. They didn’t say anywhere that it was going to originate in China. I received my Touch this morning, and I’ll have to say that going from Kunshan, China, to Shanghai to Anchorage to Indianapolis to Kansas City to Manhattan over the weekend isn’t bad for FedEx. I’m really happy with my Touch so far. I’ll probably continue to use my Microsoft Zune for my music and podcasts, but the Touch is really more of a small computer than it is a music device.

The one feature for which I was hoping in the Touch that didn’t apparently seem to be added is GPS. I had hoped that they would find a way to push this feature into the new models. Even without GPS, though, I’m really enjoying the iPod apps such as AirSharing, Evernote, SplashKey, WordPress and Twitterific.

Twitter is a popular social network that can be called ‘micro-blogging’. Think of it as a way to post updates about what you’re doing. These updates can be sent by text message to update your status on Through the use of various plugins, you can incorporate these status updates into Facebook, MySpace, WordPress, Friendfeed and many other websites and website-management systems. I have Twitter integrated into my Facebook and my website so that every time I tweet it updates my Facebook status and my website. You can also use Twitter as a messenger service of sorts, using its ability to send direct messages to others.

Twitter is simple to use. Simply create an account, enter your mobile number, and Twitter will send a text message to you. When you reply, you’ve authorized your phone so that every time you send a message to that number it will update your Twitter page – this process is called “tweeting” or posting a “tweet”.

You can use Twitter effectively without the text messaging part, but it’s not nearly as fun. They do have applications for all operating systems, including the iPod and iPhone, as well as a Firefox plugin, but nothing seems to be as cool as the phone integration.

As a Twitter user, the two numbers that you grow are “followers” and “following”. “Following” describes those other users to whose updates you subscribe and “followers” describes those users who subscribe to your updates. As of today, the leader on Twitter is Barack Obama who has 76,691 people following him, followed by Digg founder Kevin Rose who has 62,679 followers. I think I have 25.

The take away is that Twitter can be used as a bulk text messaging service. If your followers have device-updates enabled, each time you tweet they will get a text message with the contents of that tweet. Since they can follow you without turning on the phone updates, you don’t really know how many people actually get a text message, but if your followers go to they can see your status.

It took me a while to find the value in Twitter. Since the people I initially followed didn’t know me, it kind of felt like I wasn’t involved with the community. Over the last six months that I’ve been using it, I’ve convinced some of my friends to join and so now the updates I receive and send become much more relevant. It’s quite fun and makes quick updates to websites very easy.

That’s it for episode three. I’m excited that as I was writing this episode, I received an email from Apple notifying me that the Auction Podcast will be made available in the podcast section of iTunes. My next task will be getting listed in Zune and other podcasting indices.

You’ve been listening to the Auction Podcast from AuctioneerTech. If you have suggestions, questions or comments, or are interested in being a guest, please let me know by going to and leaving a message. You can also post public comments about this or any other episode, as well as find show transcrip s, on the auction podcast page of

Thank you for listening. Now go sell something.

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State bid-call contests should use electronic tabulation, foreign judges

I recently took part in the Kansas Auctioneers Association bid-call contest at the Kansas State Fair. This was my third time competing, having also done so in 2002 and 2006. I’ve also seen other contests, such as the National Auctioneers Association International Auctioneer Championship and the Oklahoma State Auctioneers Association competition.

The NAA IAC this year used a computerized scoring system, with a computer for each judge and a large display that showed the leaderboard. As a contestant finished and left the stage, the display would update before the next contestant began, showing the score as well as the new ranking. A boo or cheer from the crowd would usually accompany both the addition of new leaders as well as the departure of previous leaders from the rankings who were liked by the crowd.

The challenges faced by the local auction contests are many. Kansas, for example, uses paper score sheets from each of its – this year – five judges. These sheets must be tabulated by hand for each contestant, so after each round of the competition, there is a delay between the last contestant and the announcement of the rankings as someone uses a calculator at a breakneck pace. This manual tabulation begs – nay, demands – errors to be made at some point. I know that last year a friend of mine added the scores on his sheets and came up with a number 65 points greater than the sum total written and circled on the top sheet of his stack that was used when ranking the finalists.

Another challenge is always one of politics. With many associations choosing judges from within their ranks, losing contestants seem always to be found grumbling after the awards have been distributed about how political or preferential the judging was that particular year.

How can these challenges be overcome? Unfortunately, I don’t expect that they will be any time soon. The old guard in charge of many of the associations may see a different way as a more difficult or arduous way, even if a different way may actually be easier, faster and fairer.

I’m sure that not every local contest has the budget for change. In fact, I’d wager that the local contests have little if any budget at all, relying on donations for the items sold or mandating that the contestants themselves bring three items. This latter procedure makes the contest even more unfair, affording some more affluent auctioneers the luxury of bringing more expensive items to sell and sounding better for achieving a higher price. I know that I’ve been in contests when I didn’t have much disposable income and was forced to sell things I already owned as I watched others go buy new items to sell.

I’m sure that the software system used by the NAA is expensive. I’m not advocating its use, nor am I advocating the distribution of computers to each judge. I believe a system can be devised that would require only Internet access. This access is already available for those auction contests held at conventions in hotels. For contests held at the outdoor events and fairs, it would merely be something to require from the event staff.

The software part is the easy part. Something as simple as Google Spreadsheets could be used, with each judge sharing the spreadsheet with the scorekeeper so that each judge didn’t have access to the scores of others, but that the scorekeeper or person in charge of tabulation could see the scores from all the judges. As simple as the requirements are, it would be feasible to have a system custom made using that was tailor-made to the association’s requirements and judging criteria. Such a web-based solution could be built in four or five hours. Either Google Spreadsheets or the custom solution would allow for rapid tabulation. From a contestant’s point of view, being able to take a print-out of the performance scores would be an invaluable resource to reflect on how to be better in the future while the performance is still in recent memory.

One added benefit to such a system would be that it would require the rules and procedures to be thought-out and dictated ahead of the competition. It would not allow for late-in-the-game rule changes made after the contest had started as happened in Kansas this year.

Requiring the judges to bring their own laptops would solve the computer problem. The Internet access, should it be deemed too expensive or not possible by the event staff at an outdoor event, could easily be provided through the use of a wireless cell router. Many models are now being sold directly by the wireless carriers.

Finally, using foreign judges, judges who are not a member of the local association holding the contest, would reduce the propensity for contestants to hold questions about the political nature of the scores. The only thing bigger than an auctioneer’s voice is his ego, and being asked to judge a competition in another state would be seen my most as a compliment. The use of one or two non-auctioneer judges would also be something worth consideration, as I often wonder if judges reward the contestants who sound like them or their ideal auctioneer sound and discount those contestants who many not sound ideal but may perhaps annunciate better or have a clearer or faster chant.

I had a great time at the contest this year and I intend to compete in many more, both in Kansas and perhaps at the IAC. I think that by using electronic tabulation and foreign judges, as well as a predetermined and published set of rules that aren’t changed or determined after the competition starts, the local contests can be faster, smoother, easier and fairer.

Do you agree with me? Do I have it all wrong? Let me know in the comments.

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