Editorial: PDF under fire (again)

After enduring years of supposed ‘PDF killers’ — most recently, Microsoft’s Metro — from Redmond and other sources, I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest threat to PDF as a ubiquitous format stems not from external factors such as a single, rival format, but from within. Let me explain. PDF’s many competing formats all seem to have one thing in common: they only cover a small subset of the many possible applications of our favorite format. For instance, competitors in the print workflow space include purely graphical formats such as TIFF. While this has undeniable merits in its area of specialty, TIFF is rather less practical for, say, the distribution of converted Office documents for review and commenting — a task to which PDF is extremely well-suited.

Microsoft’s InfoPath technology works well for internal forms, but is a proprietary format that requires commercial software to fill-in and save form data, making it unsuitable for use in customer-facing forms workflows. If you have the money to spend, Adobe’s LiveCycle range fills that need nicely, as the form-filling can be enabled on a per form basis with Adobe LiveCycle Reader Extensions. Another, more affordable option using PDF is to allow for form data to be filled on the server using a product like Appligent’s FDFMerge Lite.

Adobe’s recent acquisition of Macromedia neatly removed a budding competitor in the online display of simple office documents in Flashpaper and gave its parent technology — Flash — to the owner of the PDF specification. One can only dream about the possibilities of that technological marriage!

Even without delving too deeply into the potential of a PDF/Flash hybrid, each iteration of the Acrobat family and PDF format brings many new features. Combined with Adobe’s admirable commitment to backward-compatibility, each version gets larger and more complex. In fact, it’s gotten so that many of PDF’s features must be omitted for a given workflow to function smoothly. This in turn has necessitated the use of PDF standards such as PDF/X and PDF/A, which concern themselves largely with the PDF features (and versions) that may not be used for commercial printing and long-term document archival, respectively.

Each year, software gets larger across the board, but broadband internet access also increases while magnetic storage capacity reputedly doubles. The issue here is not size, but complexity. How does one balance easy and intuitive usage with an ever-expanding suite of functionality? Can PDF continue its valiant crusade to become all things to all people, or is it at risk of collapsing under its own weight?

Adobe has done a great deal to alleviate this problem with the introduction of configurable toolbars, organizing the Acrobat 7 menus by functional areas such as Commenting, Advanced Editing and Print Production. Acrobat has also included a streamlined ‘How To’ help system since version 6, which makes it much easier for new users to get started with common tasks.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the day will come when it is no longer logical or practical to build all of the possible features and enhancements into one format — even now, it’s often not enough to know that a file is a PDF, it’s important to know what kind of PDF. What could we expect then? Further segmentation of Acrobat or PDF? Both? Until that day, let’s look forward to a more dynamic flavor of PDF that incorporates native support for rich media and automatically scales to fit perfectly on PC monitors or the smaller screens of mobile devices everywhere, courtesy of Flash. PDF/Mobile, anyone?

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About the Author: Dan Shea

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