PDF – Is the Standard in Need of a Standard?

As PDF evolves, the need for more vertically integrated solutions based on Adobe’s file format is becoming essential. Watch out for increased activity in the PDF market as Apple moves to MacOS X which uses PDF on the operating system level.

In the many years that Adobe’s Portable Document Format has been with us, it has known an impressive development in a variety of markets ranging from corporate document management to eBooks and, of course, prepress. PDF is widely viewed as a standard that has either already taken over its market segment, or is ready to do so. Due to its extensible architecture and flurry of third-party tools, PDF is also well supported and integrated in vertical market solutions. So where is the problem?

Actually, there is no problem – if you know which PDF you are talking about. Since its appearance over ten years ago, PDF has had a chance to grow and diversify. The prepress market for instance, where the file format is viewed by many as the most viable answer to proprietary data structures, was not even on Adobe’s initial road map for Acrobat. The needs for corporate data management based on PDF are so substantially different from what your printer needs that one is entitled to be surprised that we are still talking about the same basic technology (it also goes a long way toward showing the huge potential for PDF.)

There are now have several versions of the file-format, with more coming. The latest version of Acrobat uses PDF 1.3, the previous (still widely used) version used 1.2 definition of the file format. And this is without taking into account PDF/X, a graphic arts specific, standardized version developed by the Committee for Graphic Arts Technical Standards (CGATS). The main aim of PDF/X is to focus PDF on the needs of the print world, to insure trouble-free output of PDF files.

So where is PDF going?

Adobe is, of course, pushing the technical specification of the standard forward. Given that Illustrator 9 supports transparency, for instance, it is likely that this capability will be included in the PDF format in the future. For the inventor of the format, PDF is indeed a clearly defined standard – but it is also one that has evolved quite rapidly. (This could be considered a contradicition in terms.) There are technical issues associated with this evolution. Font encoding, for instance, has evolved dramatically since the first version of the file format, and is now fully unicode compliant and covers double byte fonts. The result of this is that while viewing a file is no problem (provided you have version 4.0 of Acrobat Reader) editing is becoming a headache, since many applications capable of handling PDF files cannot work with double-byte fonts yet.

The MacOS X angle

It is a well known fact that Apple has adopted PDF as the default file format for storing graphics on MacOS X, a bold and potentially very intelligent move for the market leader in publishing and graphic arts. However, for the time being, it is not quite clear how Apple will implement PDF. What is known is that Apple intends to provide basic PDF capabilities built on the published specifications of the PDF 1.2 file format, and that the company counts on third-party developers to extend this architecture to cover vertical market segment. It will take some time before MacOS X will have significant market share since it will only be shipped early next year, and even then it will take some time for the market to move. Nevertheless, Apple is likely to become a relatively strong presence in the PDF scene, and should definitely have some impact on how PDF is used as well as perceived.

What does this mean?

The long and the short of all this is that the standard needs a standard. Or, more precisely, the standard needs several standards. It is fairly safe to presume that the current implementation of PDF has stretched as far as it can. Now it is time for each market segment to push the implementation or version which makes sense. This is already the case to a certain extent. In several local markets, such as Norway, PDF is already heavily used in prepress workflows, thanks mostly to the intelligent use of add-on products which iron-out the issues and problems plain-vanilla PDF still occasionally has. The future will see which implementation of PDF will really become the market leader. One thing is for sure: one size definitely doesn’t fit all any more.

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