Crocodoc Rolls Out Embeddable HTML5 Document Viewer; YC Startup Wants to Be “The New Adobe of the Web,” Sans Flash

If you’re a Web geek, you know all about the death match between Flash and HTML5. Even if you’re not, you’ve probably heard at least in passing about the controversy over Adobe’s proprietary video and animation platform, and how Apple won’t provide support for Flash videos on its mobile devices, and how Steve Jobs and many others think that the future of multimedia lies with HTML5—the latest revision of the Web’s basic structuring language, which includes support for open-source video standards.

But you probably didn’t know that the Flash-HTML5 battle spills beyond video and animation into other areas of the Web, such as document sharing. About nine months ago, “social publishing” startup Scribd, which lets users post and share office documents online, embarked on a huge project to convert all of its site content from Flash to HTML5; the Y Combinator-spawned company said at the time that it wanted to “deliver an impressive reading experience across all browsers and web-enabled devices, without requiring add-ons or plug-ins.” But Scribd’s embeddable document reader still uses Flash, meaning that Scribd documents might not show up correctly outside of Scribd’s own website.

Now Scribd has been leapfrogged—and by another Y Combinator-backed startup, of all things. Boston- and San Francisco-based Crocodoc, which emerged from Y Combinator last spring, today released the world’s first embeddable HTML5 document viewer. (You can see an actual example on page 2 of this article.) That may sound like a pretty nerdy milestone, but it means that developers who adopt the viewer will be able to integrate PDF, Word, and PowerPoint documents into any website or document sharing system without requiring end users to run Flash, Acrobat, Word, or other programs or plug-ins. It also gets Crocodoc one step closer to being able to show such documents even on mobile devices such as iPads and iPhones.

Yammer, the San Francisco-based maker of a popular enterprise instant messaging and social networking system, has already built the Crocodoc viewer into its software. “Crocodoc gives Yammer users a great document viewing experience right inside our site,” said Yammer chief technology officer Adam Pisoni in a statement about the new viewer.

Ryan Damico, Crocodoc’s founder, argues that “HTML5 is really the way of the future.” Converting any PDF, Word, or PowerPoint document into an active Web document means that users can “select text, search, zoom, scroll, or do anything you want with it, as opposed to being stuck in Adobe or Flash. It’s super-fast and it looks great.”

While the new embeddable viewer can’t be used to actually edit documents, it can be used to annotate them, essentially by adding a new layer containing highlights, drawings, and comments. By integrating the viewer into their own collaboration systems—as Yammer is doing—Crocodoc’s partners will be in a better position to help their customers share and mark up rich documents, Damico says.

Like Scribd, Crocodoc had to scrap its old Flash-based viewer and start from scratch in order to make sure that PDF, Word, and PowerPoint documents would show up correctly in any Web browser. (See the side-by-side comparison between a PDF document and its HTML5 simulacrum, above.) That meant figuring out “a whole bunch of tricks behind the scenes,” Damico says.

The basic problem is that document formats like Adobe’s PDF weren’t built with the Web in mind. “The way a PDF document is laid out internally, it says ‘This capital I goes here, and this apostrophe goes there,’ and if you tried to match that character for character in your browser, it would get so bogged down it would crash after a page or two.” To match a PDF document’s look and feel in HTML5, Damico says, Crocodoc has to do things like extract font definitions from the native documents, make sure the fonts are compatible with the user’s browser and operating system, and “do a whole bunch of work on the layout side to make sure they line up perfectly.”

Damico says the HTML5 conversion project took most of the startup’s manpower for months. “I don’t think we have ever worked on a more challenging technical project than this,” he says. “It’s been absolutely crazy. But we love to solve these kinds of problems.”

In addition to its support from Y Combinator, Crocodoc has lined up backing from prominent individual investors like Dave McClure, Joshua Schachter, Paul Buchheit, and Steve Chen, as well as XG Ventures, a venture firm run entirely by ex-Googlers. While the company’s embeddable HTML5 viewer is free to anyone for non-commercial use, the startup isn’t trying to create a large social publishing community similar to Scribd’s. Rather, its business strategy will be to license the technology to partners like Yammer who aren’t document-presentation specialists but want to build document support into their own software. “We want to be the new Adobe of the Web,” Damico says. “If there are documents anywhere on the Web, they should be flowed through Crocodoc.”

The company hasn’t yet tuned the new player to work in iOS apps or in mobile versions of Safari—the browser used by the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. But that will come soon. “The exciting thing for us about HTML5 is it’s a platform we can build on very aggressively,” says Damico. “We will roll out a mobile version of this so, with your iPad, you can review documents and make comments. In the long run I wouldn’t rule out document editing too. It’s very early in our life cycle, as far as some of the things we are heading toward.”

Here’s an example of a live document embedded in Crocodoc’s new player (read only in this case).

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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