OPINION: PDF Continues its March Toward Ubiquity

About 20 years on, it looks like PDF’s inexorable march into dominance as a de jure (not just de facto) document standard continues. As of March 11, 2014, the latest development is the US Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) decision to support PDF-based digital signatures on two key forms (8878 and 8879). Of course, right there in the first paragraph, it says that ‘No specific technology is required’, but we all know what the IRS means. Nevertheless, this wording makes the guidelines future-proof in case PDF dies or we slip through a portal and end up in a world where PDF doesn’t exist, but really, PDF is surely what the IRS had in mind. On a site called ‘Planet PDF’ though, I suppose I would say that!

While other technologies do support digital signatures, PDF is a ubiquitous (182,000,000 found online via a broad Google filetype serach at time of writing), viable final format document technology. It has also been a formally recognized standard since mid-2008, to boot. Well, if you include the specific subtypes of PDF for long-term archiving (PDF/A), engineering (PDF/E), universal access (PDF/UA), etc., then it boasts a few more standards, but who’s counting?

The recent move by the IRS is just the latest chapter in what has been a long relationship between the IRS and PDF. Way back when, the IRS bulk-licensed a cut-down version of Acrobat to distribute on CDs along with PDF forms. It was a prescient move that allowed taxpayers to complete their PDF tax forms electronically. These days, things have progressed to the point where accountants complain — with ample justification — about the bottleneck that is formed when they have to chase manual signatures from clients.

The US IRS might have been one of PDF’s most prominent government advocates, but it is now far from alone. It seems that, the format’s status as a formal standard, page fidelity and compatibility with digital signature methodologies makes it highly attractive to government agencies and regulators, particularly those looking to streamline processes by going digital. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has its own set of specifications for PDF-based submissions, and many courts around the world have been working with PDF-based e-filing for years.

The high-and-increasing prevalence of PDF files fosters general familiarity with the format. This, combined with its aforementioned assets relating to fidelity and signatures are continuing to drive the increasing penetration of PDF into these regulatory and submissions frameworks. PDF will likely become even more embedded in these settings as time goes on. It seems that PDF has already started to become one of those ‘invisible’ technologies that so many people use daily but few think deeply about. Compared with when I started working with it in 2000, the ongoing evolution of how PDF intersects with our lives and work is far less dynamic and more incremental. Is it less exciting? Maybe, but that’s probably because PDF has found its place: everywhere. Save a tree. Save a ton of time and money. Save As PDF.

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About the Author: Dan Shea

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