PDF Master: Thom Parker

In order to commemorate more than 20 years of PDF, we here at Planet PDF have conducted a new series of interviews with current PDF Masters, movers and shakers in the PDF universe. The capacity of the PDF format has grown exponentially since its original release. So have the uses to which PDF has been put, as our next PDF Master can attest.

Thom Parker, Founder of WindJack Solutions and www.pdfscripting.com is a self-described ‘Acrobat JavaScript geek and software adventurer’ (he’s also a keen SCUBA diver, incidentally). He has a broad engineering and programming background, including more than 25 years writing software in a variety of languages, and has been developing solutions for Adobe software since 1997. He has conceived and built numerous PDF applications, including PDF CanOpener, AcroButtons, and AcroDialogs.

In addition to these Acrobat tools, Thom produces videos, samples, and articles for www.pdfscripting.com, which is a portal for information about programming for Acrobat and PDF. He literally wrote the book on Acrobat Dynamic Stamps, which you’ll find referenced at www.pdfscripting.com. Thom’s focus is PDF software development with an emphasis on automating paperless workflows and form data solutions. He develops solutions for a wide variety of users and industries, provides training, writes articles to help elucidate PDF issues for both novices and PDF pros, and frequently answers questions on the various PDF forums. He was also nice enough to stop by and answer a few of ours.

PLANET PDF: When and why did you first get involved with Acrobat/PDF?

THOM PARKER, Founder, Windjack Solutions: In 2001 my wife and I had just returned from a year and a half of traveling around the world. Before that I had been doing general software development. Among the projects I’d worked on were several plug-ins for Adobe Photoshop, so I was already familiar with the Adobe products. Now that we were back I wanted to find an interesting technology in which to specialize. Quite by chance it happened that my neighbor ran an IT service and needed someone to do some programming. One of projects was a plug-in for Acrobat. The PDF specification and API were so complicated that it took me days to figure out the basics. I even had to write specialized tools to break down and display the file structure so I could figure out what was going on. I was instantly hooked. Electronic documentation was a fast growing technology and PDF was one of the dominant players. It seemed like the perfect specialization. And the analysis tools I initially created turned into PDF CanOpener, my first Acrobat product.

PLANET PDF: For those who don’t know, what is it that you are doing with PDF right now?

PARKER: Right now I have a couple of projects going on that are typical of the kind of work I’ve been doing since I started working on PDF. One of the projects is a creating an electronic forms process that was previously done with paper forms. This project is not quite as straightforward as just creating a form, because the flow of data is between multiple entities, not all of which are allowed see all the data on the form. Which is why I’m involved. People call me when their task doesn’t fit into the standard model.

Another project I’m working on is creating a specialized Acrobat toolset for automating a complex, paperless document analysis workflow. It involves writing VBA add-ins for MS Excel that talk to scripts in Acrobat to extract data from multiple PDFs that were previously marked up with custom tools that I also created. This toolset is designed to duplicate a process that was previously done with paper documents. Both of these projects are essentially converting a paper process, to paperless, which is very typical of the kind of work I do every day.

PLANET PDF: What’s your next PDF project (as much as you *can* say, at least)?

PARKER: To me, one of the most interesting aspects of PDF is interactive forms. However, much to my dismay, when I first started out in this business 10 years ago I received almost no requests for form data projects. I don’t mean creating PDF forms, there has always been a big interest in that. I’m talking about how you deal with the data after the form is filled out. That has changed. I’m getting many more requests in this area. I’m sure this is because the general user base is using more electronic processes and has become much more educated. In response to this increased interest I’m planning on creating educational content in this area for www.pdfscripting.com and a PDF form data product, the exact nature of which I’m not ready to discuss.

PLANET PDF: Briefly describe the most significant change in the evolution or use of the technology since you first began working with PDF, and why do you consider it significant?

PARKER: When I first started out, most of my projects were implemented within, or directly connected to the Acrobat environment. There are a couple of important reasons for using Acrobat. The first is that it provides a wealth of advanced PDF functionality that can be programed in a number of different ways. It acts as a kind of general purpose PDF library and workflow tool. The second reason is that it is accessible to most users. In fact, it was pretty much the only game in town for the level of functionality it provided. However, these solutions were for the most part, confined to the user’s desktop computer. That’s not true anymore. Changes in the PDF ecosystem, and really, the entire technology ecosystem, mean that now I’m implementing projects on a variety of platforms, such as remote servers and iPads.

This change creates new opportunities for the user, but it also creates huge challenges for the developer. For one thing, there is no equivalent tool for mobile systems that has the level of functionality Acrobat provides on the desktop. Not even close. Most mobile PDF viewers (and there are several) don’t even display PDFs correctly, much less provide interactive features. The solution for mobile devices is to move the functionality on to a server, and use the device as a dumb display, and then put all the intelligence on a remote server. On the server side there is a great variety of PDF tools, but unfortunately they tend to have complex licensing and can be very expensive.

This means my development is moving from a localized, uniform, powerful, inexpensive, and relatively easy to use platform, to a fractured, potentially expensive and more difficult to use platform that provides less functionality. However, this change is new and I expect that the mobile devices will get much better and we’ll see a lot more changes as the winners and losers sort themselves out.

PLANET PDF: With Creative Cloud, Adobe is shifting towards more of a focus on a subscription-based model. What impact do you think this will have on the world of PDF, both from a developer/solutions provider standpoint and user perspective?

PARKER: Ideally you would hope going to a subscription based model means that more people would have access to Acrobat, which is currently the most complete and powerful desktop PDF tool around. This could mean that more people have the ability to use PDFs in more sophisticated ways, and need more custom and 3rd party solutions, thus improving the PDF developer business. However, an Acrobat subscription creates and interesting issue for 3rd party plug-ins and other solutions that use Acrobat. These tools only work when Acrobat is working. So even though my customer is buying a lifetime license for a solution, they have to pay Adobe a monthly fee to use it. In a way, this move might force more developers to create non-Adobe related solutions in order to break this dependency. Which, might ironically help to reduce the demand for Acrobat. Of course, if we’re all moving toward developing solutions for mobile devices, then Acrobat’s subscription model is a moot point.

PLANET PDF: Pondering the future of PDF, what most excites you about the next few years?

PARKER: Pundits have been talking about the paperless office for over a decade now. But my experience is that the vast majority of businesses, which are small businesses, have not gone paperless. It’s not something you can flick a switch and make happen. There is a great deal of history and momentum in traditional paper based workflows. And let’s face facts, the technology really hasn’t been ready either, not for the office workers and small businesses that have to use it. What I’m seeing is that paperless is a generational change that is just coming into its own right now. I am excited to see how PDF carves out its place the real world paperless solutions that are for the majority of businesses, not just the giants.

PLANET PDF: Briefly describe a common misconception about or frequent problem you’ve seen with PDF that you’d like to try to clarify for others and/or provide a tip to address.

PARKER: This question goes to the heart of my favorite topic, form data. I’m seeing an increase in questions about form data handling. Of course nobody actually asks, ‘How do I build a workflow system to handle form data?’ The questions are along the lines of ‘How do I make a form and get the data back?’ There is a lot more to this question than people realize. It’s not a simple one-line answer. In fact, you could fill volumes on techniques for distributing forms and handling the return data. So to answer this question I created a series of free videos at www.pdfscripting.com that explain the theory of how Forms work and present a general outline of different kinds of solutions.

PLANET PDF: What are your favorite PDF tools, applications, SDKs or services (unrelated to your company or business) and why?

PARKER: I’ve always liked Acrobat because of course, it is the first, most complete, most accessible, and most programmable of all the PDF tools. And it’s also on the desktop, so it’s also very convenient to work with.

PLANET PDF: How has developing with PDF changed since the formal recognition of the various PDF standards?

PARKER: A lot of the PDF standards don’t affect my work, so I can’t really talk about how they’ve affected some of the specific areas for which some of the standards were created. However, the goodness of PDFs and the interactive features do affect my work. I think that one of the main ideas behind making PDF an ISO standard was to get all the different PDF developers onto the same page. To tighten up what was a pretty wide variation in how various tools were creating PDFs. To a certain extent this has happened. Certainly the bigger and more traditional players are all on board. But the mobile device platforms have created a kind of Wild West of PDF development and now there is a whole new crop of bad PDF applications. Hopefully, the PDF standards will eventually bring these new applications into line.

PLANET PDF: How has the proliferation of relatively powerful mobile devices and widespread data access changed the way people work with PDF?

PARKER: I’m not sure yet if mobile devices have made an impact on PDF. My first impression of looking at a PDF on a mobile device was ‘Ugh, this looks terrible.’ That was on a phone, and really, the only things that looks good on a phone screen are apps that were designed for small screens. I don’t see people creating PDFs so that they look good on a tiny screen. Viewing a PDF on a tablet is a much better experience, so that’s probably where PDFs are going to be viewed on mobile platforms. The other issue is that these mobile devices are still pretty dumb. There is no such thing as a fully featured PDF Application on a mobile device. Most mobile PDF viewers barely implement the rendering model (how the PDF is drawn), much less the interactive features. There are some good PDF apps out there, but we’re just at the beginning. My opinion is that the impact so far has been small, but there is a lot of room for growth, particularly with forms.

PLANET PDF: What impact has the rise of mobile/portable had for those providing PDF-based solutions?

PARKER: I’ve seen a ton of PDF applications for mobile, mostly for signing and annotating PDFs. Most of them are fairly primitive as far as how they implement the PDF specification. But these apps came onto the market as soon as mobile devices came into existence. So it seems to me that there is a real need for viewing and operating on PDF on mobile devices. And this need has spawned a whole new generation of PDF developers. I think there is huge potential here. For example, tablet devices are a perfect platform for filling and submitting form data precisely because they are so mobile. It’s like an electronic clipboard. I’ve already had a few projects creating complex PDF forms in this environment. It wasn’t easy. I had to find creative solutions to get around the limitations of the app. One of the problems with all the PDF mobile apps is that they are trying to replicate the programming model for the desktop, where all the functionality is built into the application. But mobile devices don’t have the power necessary to support that kind of development. We need a new model where the computing is done on a remote server and the device is only used to display and do light duty computing. So there is a long way to go. To make PDF solutions really work on mobile there is going to need to be some new standards and server based infrastructure to make up for the lack of power on the devices.

PLANET PDF: Where do you see the most important functional gap in what’s out there? Tell me about your dream PDF tool, SDK or whatever. Why do you think it doesn’t exist yet?

PARKER: Again, I have to bring up form data workflows. Literally every business, government, social club, or entity of any kind uses forms. Lots of developers have created form data solutions, but most of these solutions require expertise that is only available to large organizations. Few have succeeded in making a good form solution that is usable and accessible to the majority of non-technical form users. And now it’s important that these solutions also work on mobile devices. I think that for us to truly become a paperless society, we have to have easy to use, readily accessible, form solutions for the masses.

PLANET PDF: Thanks for your time!

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About the Author: Dan Shea

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