My Love Affair with PDF

I remember the first time I heard about PDF. A co-worker dropped a stack of 3.5 inch floppies on my desk and said “Adobe’s about to change the world. Install this and let me know what you think.” I worked for Xerox at the time and the idea of sending electronic paper rather than FedEx-ing paper copies or faxes was going to be a problem for us. So I installed the software, it was called Carousel at the time, but we now know it as Adobe Acrobat. I didn’t have a manual or any kind of guide but eventually discovered that I could convert a PostScript file to PDF using the Distiller application so I opened Word, found a document I had been working on, printed it to the PostScript drive as a file and then ran that through the Distiller. I opened the file in the viewer and… well… to be frank… I was unimpressed. “Why would anyone do this?”

My coworker asked me to send the file to his CompuServe address (it might have been ccMail). Later, we met up at his apartment after work and he showed me the same file on his Mac. It looked perfect. Exactly like my Word file, I assumed it was an image… but it wasn’t. It was searchable text, images, and line art.
My reaction… “Printers are going to go crazy for this…” [expletive deleted]
Throughout high school and some of college I worked at the same print shop that my father sold printing for. I knew the business and I knew how analog it was. Much of my father’s time was spent in traffic driving between the downtown printing plant and the suburban office parks where the artwork was created even though Desktop Publishing had gone mainstream several years ago. There just wasn’t a way to reliably send documents around electronically. PostScript was being used by some of the creatives but because PostScript files are actually programs that have to run in order to create an image, there were always problems. I threw away a lot of film because of a missing font and if I needed to reprint one particular page, I had to run the whole job over again.
When I saw that first PDF file on the Mac looking exactly like the one on my Windows machine, I knew Adobe was on to something.
I fell in love with PDF.
But like all long term relationships, PDF and I have gone through some difficult times. Over the years, as we’ve both grown and changed, there are aspects of PDF that I have real problems with… more so the PDF tools than the PDF specification but… implementation is everything… and in the end, it’s the implementation that matters. This article launches a new series where I explore my love/hate relationship with PDF.
I’ll start the series on a positive note.
I love PDF because it’s incredibly simple to publish final form documents to nearly every popular platform and have recipients see it exactly as the author intended. You barely have to think. If your authoring application doesn’t support PDF output directly, you can almost always print to PDF and in either case, it looks right. Because of PDF’s roots in PostScript, it was primarily concerned with maintaining the visual fidelity of the document. It still does that. PDF files from 1993 created by Acrobat 1.0 still work, still render correctly, and can still be edited by modern PDF tools and combined with newer PDF files created by the most recent versions of PDF software. No other non-image document format other than ASCII files have stood the test of time like PDF. Nothing.
Today, PDF creation and viewing have been integrated into the major operating systems and into the most popular browsers, library tools to convert from PDF to other formats are popping up like mushrooms and Cloud services that allow you to fill, sign, and route PDF forms are widely available.
Much of PDF’s success, I think, is due to the fact that it requires exactly zero in terms of expertise to get it right most of the time. Anyone can create a PDF and be reasonably sure that the person they send it to will see the same thing. You can’t even do that with a fax machine. The PDF looks right… every time…
… but that’s where the problems start. Today, it’s not just human eyeballs that need to consume PDF files. Machines need to consume them as well and when the authors are only concerned with the visual fidelity, automated systems can run into problems.
But that’s my next article.
What do you love about PDF? When did you first discover it’s usefulness? Let us know in the comments section below.

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