What’s the purpose of PDF? Why can’t I just send Word or Excel files; why should I bother converting to PDF?
Very few “love” PDF, but we all need it, because PDF is electronic paper. Not everyone understands exactly why the PDF format is so popular, but for the efficient and reliable delivery of final-form electronic documents, there’s nothing else quite like a PDF file.
For business and government organizations, “posting the PDF” is now essentially THE physical act of publication. Pretty much everyone with a computer is assumed to have a PDF Reader; it’s a standard assumption in millions of interactions between consumers, business and government everyday. Hundreds of millions of people “PDF it” when they want to share some content.
Current squabbles between the two companies aside, even Apple’s display technology is based on Adobe’s PDF.
So how did electronic paper get defined as PDF?
There are other technologies that deliver some of PDF’s complete package, but PDF is, by design, “electronic paper”. It’s built from the outset to work the same way in all places, period. It turns out that’s the most important thing of all. There are a set of very specific reasons why PDF is the world’s choice for electronic paper. No other format offers this combination of attributes.
Why PDF is the De Facto Standard for Electronic Documents
The uses of PDF are legion, and the mis-use of PDF is almost as varied, but some sort of Portable Document Format is here to stay. PDF is an infrastructure technology, almost as essential to the modern world as TCP/IP, almost as basic as paper.
Like paper, PDF combines characteristics that encompass any document, in any setting. Legal briefs, product manuals, sheet music, phone-bills, articles, construction drawings, all may be faithfully represented, integrated and exchanged with PDF. That’s why PDF is the world’s electronic document format.
Even if the specific technology we know as “PDF” today, the one invented by Adobe Systems in 1993, were to ever be considered obsolete, it could only happen if the new technology shared PDF’s core characteristics.
Unlike web-pages, which require substantial infrastructure to create, post and host, PDF files may be produced by any application that can print. Word-processors, spreadsheets, CAD software, scanned pages, photographs – any source content may be converted to PDF. Any PDF page may be intermixed with any other PDF page in the same file. PDF reading software, such as Adobe’s Reader and its many competitors, is ubiquitous because (almost) since the very beginning of PDF, the ability to view and print any PDF file was free.
WHY YOU MIGHT CARE: Who doesn’t like it easy?
In the 21st century, there’s just no excuse for poor presentation. From elaborate graphic-design to simply making sure page-breaks happen just the way you’ve set it up, PDF delivers you from worrying about what it’s going to look like or print on the other end.
Simple to Make and to Share
PDF files allow authors to layout and style content precisely as they see fit, confident that the document will invariably appear and print the same way, regardless of computer, operating system, PDF reader, software version or network connection status. Pagination never varies in PDF files – if I’m referring you to the 1st photo after the 2nd paragraph on page 244, you’ll be able to find it.
Sure, you can send a Word, HTML, PowerPoint or any other file. But other formats, while just as easy to attach to an email, aren’t quite as easy to share as PDF. They might not look quite the same when opened on different machines, or can’t be opened on a Mac. There may be font dependencies, or differing page-sizes or other application or user settings that affect appearance. There may be undesirable information such as slide-show notes, metadata or “Track Changes” information that you might not want to share!
First and foremost, you can’t be sure the recipients have the same version of PowerPoint (or whatever you are sending). You may not want to give them the ability to edit the document, you don’t want hassle with passwords. Making a PDF is usually just a click or two, and for that amount of effort, it’s clearly a smart move.
A typical Acrobat or Reader user doesn’t think about their choice to use PDF at a fundamental level. They make, send and use PDF files precisely because, hey – why worry? PDF just works.
WHY YOU MIGHT CARE: Portability is a critical feature for any conceivable final-form electronic document format. PDF delivery is entirely manageable and utterly predictable, and it just works.
PDFs may also contain a wide variety of other features; navigation bookmarks, fillable forms, annotations, metadata, digital signatures to guarantee authenticity, and much, much more that HTML simply isn’t equipped to do.
Convert from any source, use in every workflow
Not only does PDF provide a completely faithful, high-fidelity rendering of your source document, but you can mix PDF pages with those of other PDF documents from different sources. InDesign, Word, scanned pages, satellite images, screen-shots; it all goes into a PDF.
But wait, there’s more. PDF includes detailed management of all sorts of document functions, navigation features, accessibility and more, and it’s all just ready to go, for users on every platform, inside of each and every PDF file. PDFs are usually smaller than the files used to create them, so they are easier to email and download. Although hard-drives are getting larger and larger, a 195kb PDF file is usually preferred over a 2.95 MB Word file, especially if users aren’t expected to edit it.
WHY YOU MIGHT CARE: Users can learn to make PDF files from any software in seconds, and every PDF file works with every other PDF file, so they can be shuffled and reorganized like… paper pages.
PDF files are ideal vehicles for content that’s intended for limited distribution. Most PDF creation and manipulation software can add password protection to PDF files, and even include password-protected attachments. Interested users should look for software (such as our APCrypt that supports 256-bit AES encryption, about as unbreakable as it gets in commercial software.
WHY YOU MIGHT CARE: Security is a basic requirement, and many document authors and distributors want the security of knowing that their file can only be accessed by authorized individuals.
The natural self-containment of PDF files, along with other technical characteristics makes it possible to use certificates and digital signatures with PDF files and PDF Portfolios to address operational and archival authentication needs for governments, corporations and other institutions. The digital signature mechanism for PDF is fully specified in ISO 32000-1, and is available to any software developer.
WHY YOU MIGHT CARE: With a digital signature in place, any PDF file may be checked to spot tampering. With a certificate authority signer, the PDF may be reliably authenticated in terms of its origin.
Since 2000, it’s been possible to add semantics to PDF content, making the material accessible to users with disabilities who must use Assistive Technology (AT) in order to read. From scanned documents to drawings, diagrams and multilingual content, PDF files may be tagged to provide a complete, high-quality reading and navigating experience. Many applications don’t presently generate accessible content by themselves, but once converted to PDF, these documents may be structured and tagged for complete accessibility and for reuse in many other applications.
WHY YOU MIGHT CARE: For government agencies and contractors around the world, new regulations increasingly require that electronic documents be accessible. Many businesses are choosing to post accessible content to service disabled users, but there are many other benefits to semantic information. From data-mining to text-extraction, search-engine optimization (SEO) and more, content accessibility opens many new possibilities for interactive electronic content.
The PDF format is a transparently and democratically managed, non-proprietary technology. Anyone may observe, and any member-country of ISO’s TC 171 (there are many) can send delegates to the ISO table. As of 2008, PDF is defined by ISO 32000-1:2008. ISO 32000-2 is under development.
Invented by Adobe Systems and rolled out with Acrobat 1.0 in 1993, Adobe Systems has published the PDF Reference since the beginning. No-one has ever had to pay Adobe a royalty to make PDF files. Until 2008, Adobe kept the copyright and updated the Reference, the “rules of the road” for PDF, as it wished. Meanwhile, a variety of subset International Standards for PDF were developed to serve industry-specific requirements ranging from printing to archiving to accessibility.
In 2008, Adobe ceded control of the PDF specification to ISO, the International Standards Organization. Now known as ISO 32000, PDF is an International Standard; it is no longer owned by Adobe Systems but is managed by diverse members of the electronic document industry, with free and open access to all interested parties as observers or full voting members.
WHY YOU MIGHT CARE: While PDF is everywhere, one lingering doubt for some has been the idea that Adobe Systems “owned” PDF and therefore, adopting PDF for critical business functions would create a vulnerability. Turning over PDF to ISO is the categorical solution to this concern – Adobe Systems or no, PDF is here to stay, and no-one owns your PDF files except you.
By Duff Johnson