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

2/16/11Follow @wroush

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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 contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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