Acrobat Reader dysfunctionality

A recent headline stated that distribution of the free Adobe Acrobat Reader
has now exceeded 100 million copies worldwide. Ok, so I’m impressed. Acrobat
Reader remains (by a very wide margin) the most popular PDF viewer. It’s an
industrial strength application that works extremely well and is user
friendly. It’s also one of the easiest computer applications there is to get
your hands on. It’s distributed freely on countless CD roms and websites.

Note: Because Adobe has decided to make the inner workings of PDF available to
the public, it is possible for anyone to develop and sell (or give away) PDF
viewers with any amount of functionality.

Acrobat Reader offers computer users everything needed to view, print, and use
PDF files…well almost. Make no mistake about it, Acrobat Reader is the
property of Adobe, Inc. Yes, Adobe does give it away freely to anyone who
wants it, but as the license agreement indicates, Adobe does limit the use of
the free Reader in some situations.

What’s missing?

Perhaps the most obvious limitation is Reader’s inability to save
modifications to a PDF file. Some people wrongly assume that Reader is broken
or didn’t install properly when they notice the Save command is missing. Rest
assured, there is nothing wrong with Reader, as this is the way it’s supposed
to be. This in essence is the only real limitation that Reader has. There are
several other things that Reader cannot do (and I’ll cover them shortly) but
these are mainly side effects of the missing Save command.

In conjunction with the missing Save command, Adobe has worded the Reader
license agreement in a way that prevents anyone (mainly computer programmers)
from adding a Save command to Reader. There are also restrictions on adding a
Save command through plugins that can be developed for Reader. As you can see,
the Save command is the focal point of Reader’s limitations.

Some people feel frustrated by this and claim that Adobe is trying to force
people to buy the full commercial version of Acrobat (which has a Save enabled
PDF viewer/editor). This is partially true. Consider for a moment such
products as Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint. Microsoft offers a free
Word document viewer, and guess what? It doesn’t have a Save command.
PowerPoint has a freely distributable slide show viewer, and it doesn’t have a
Save command either. There are many other examples that could be used, but the
point is, these free viewers are part of the overall marketing scheme for the
commercial products they work in conjunction with. This is a technique used by
many companies.

You would do the same

So put yourself in Adobe’s place for a moment and ask yourself, if the free
Acrobat Reader had a Save command, would people go out and purchase the
commercial version of Acrobat? This is a business decision that users of the
free Acrobat Reader must live with. That is part of the philosophy behind many
free viewers.

So where does all this leave users of the free Acrobat Reader? The answer to
this question will depend on your situation and how you use PDF files.
Although I cannot possibly cover every situation where Reader is limited, here
is a list the most common ones.

  • Bookmarks cannot be created with Reader. To do so would require a Save
    command in order to save the bookmarks.
  • Thumbnails cannot be created with Reader, for the same reason as bookmarks.
  • Annotations cannot be created with Reader, for the same reason as above.
  • Text editing of any kind cannot be done with Reader. Why edit text if you
    can’t save your edits?
  • FDF (forms data files) cannot be exported by Reader. Exporting requires that
    you create and save a new FDF file. However, the Reader plugin for web
    browsers can still use PDF forms online and submit FDF to a web server which
    is running the commercial version of Acrobat or another application that can
    do the required processing.
  • PDF templates do not work with Reader. Templates in effect can create new
    PDF pages or entire documents as well as make modifications to existing pages,
    all of which need to be saved. Because templates can rely on Javascript, some
    Javascript also doesn’t work with Reader.

In these last two cases a web server can do the necessary processing, deliver
the new or modified PDF document to the Reader plugin running within a web
browser, and this PDF file can in turn be saved locally as any other
downloaded file would be through your web browser’s Save command.

As you can see, PDF forms do add another element to Reader but mainly as a
data input tool. The data handling, saving and processing must be done by a
webserver instead of Reader.

The name tells all

Acrobat Reader’s name is very fitting. It is indeed only a reader.

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About the Author: Bryan Guignard

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