Getting Started – Developing for PDF

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Introduction to Acrobat Development Learning Center


The key to developing with Acrobat is an understanding and/or an appreciation of the Acrobat Software Development Kit. The better your knowledge and understanding of its contents, the better your position will be to develop solutions with and for Acrobat.

This kit contains extensive code samples, complete Application Programming Interface (API) documentation, entire applications (including source) and additional resources that you need in order to develop solutions in and around Acrobat.

The key to developing with PDF is the PDF Specification. This specification, an ISO standard, is currently at version 1.5 and represents the concepts, specifications and technical limitations of the Portable Document Format.

The PDF Specification although bundled with the SDK is revised and released independently. Go to the direct download location.

To understand the Portable Document Format means reading and understanding the PDF Reference manual. It’s big, almost 1200 pages big and although you don’t need to digest the whole manual in one go you will over the course of time need to use most parts as reference.

The Acrobat SDK is available here, however there’s a catch. The catch is that you need to become a paying member of the Adobe Solutions Developer Network in order to download the SDK in its entirety. The details and pricing can be found at the Adobe site.

It’s not all bad news. Adobe has released several key documents as free downloads to ensure the continued growth of Acrobat and also the developing user base.

Download or Join?

As a paying member I get great value from the membership, apart from access to the SDK, Adobe also provides complete and wholehearted access to other Adobe Developer and technical resources (web casts, white papers, pre-release software etc). If you make a living from developing for PDF and/or Acrobat then the money is well worth spending, but of course I’m a member so its hard for me to be unbiased.

The Bigger Picture

The following diagram illustrates Acrobat’s four main development tools. As you can see Visual Basic/JSO and InterApplication Communication exist outside of Acrobat, where as Plugins and Javascript exist inside Acrobat and indeed rely on Acrobat to provide a toolset from which its functionality extends.

width=’243′ height=’240′ alt=’the bigger picture’ align=’right’>To develop any solution in or around Acrobat/PDF you will firstly need to know which of the four development tools you will need. You may simply need to automate a mundane task (Javascript) or you may need to build a more robust standalone application within Acrobat (Plugin). Or you may even need a combination of these tools.

I have found that the best way to decide which tool or tools to use is to have an understanding of the limitations of each development tool.

The following table compares some of the potential areas of development, each item is given a rating indicating the level of control or access to complete each appropriate item, the higher ratings indicate more access or control over the appropriate area.

These ratings are purely subjective and do not represent exact values.


By far the best thing to do is become familiar with the respective development tools. Using the Acrobat SDK and/or Internet along with the specification for PDF will enable you to not only have a better understanding of the types of solutions you can provide but also the respective strength’s and weaknesses of each type of development tool.

Of course if you havent done so already create an Account at the PlanetPDF Forum and subscribe to the Developer and Javascript conferences, its here that you can ask, learn and maybe even help out other Acrobat/PDF Developers.

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About the Author: Dave Wraight

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