PDF – Remembering the first time

You never forget the first time.

There’s something special about that initial encounter that continues to provoke fond memories, even if over the years performance improved considerably with experience.

I still recall the night at the Colorado hotel — truly electronic, we called it.

The first PDF Experience.

I’m sure many in this Acrobat-aware community can recall similar moments — that instant you sensed this (format) was something special. As I step into my new role as Planet PDF’s Web Editor, I thought it might be worth retelling *my* moment as a way of explaining my interest in and involvement with Adobe’s portable document technology.

Educated in journalism, and having worked as a photographer and writer for many years, in the late ’80s I became increasingly aware of looming technological changes that seemed poised to change the way my profession worked. So I immersed myself in learning about it (I’ll spare you most of the details) so as to be prepared.

Getting involved with an annual hands-on, educational workshop was one part of my phase of accelerated technology enlightenment. In 1992 I joined the (volunteer) staff, which included some of the best and brightest folks exploring the changing tools of print journalism. This was the fourth incarnation of the week-long event, the goal of which was to use all of the latest products and tools to produce a journalistically viable publication — in traditional newspaper format — by week’s end. The so-called ‘Electronic Times’ was printed on site by the local newspaper. Copies were then distributed to assembled staff, vendor representatives and paid participants at the concluding night’s banquet.

As always, we experienced our share of challenges — technical and journalistic — at the fourth annual workshop in September 1992. Having found a way to resolve most of them, we left town already thinking about how we could raise the bar again the following year when we gathered to do it all again. It was partly my job as Technology Editor to suggest ways we could do that.

A couple workshop colleagues who, like me, already had been heavily involved in the world of online communication for several years, wondered about expanding the print-oriented event to Cyberspace — at the very least, on an experimental level. While tracking new publishing industry developments in the months leading to the 1993 workshop, we hatched a plan.

Conducted within a large, high-tech newsroom set up in a hotel ballroom, the usual print-publishing activities took center stage at the fifth annual industry event. By week’s end, another tabloid-format newspaper came rolling off the printing presses of the host Colorado newspaper. All involved were thrilled to see we had again succeeded despite pushing the technological envelope in several new directions.

There was one breakthrough, however, that only a few of the 150 or so participants and staff realized we had achieved when time came for the celebratory banquet. When workshop editors finished unveiling the week’s printed results to everyone in the ballroom, cheers went up.

Then I was called upon to update everyone on one other noteworthy accomplishment. For the first time, I explained to the primarily ink-and-paper nurtured professionals, they were *not* the first people to see and read this year’s edition of the workshop’s ‘Electronic Times’ newspaper. When the week’s final stories had been produced, edited and designed, and page negatives output and delivered to be printed on a Thursday night, a few of us had stayed late into the night (once more) in the now-quiet newsroom.

Working with a pair of already Adobe Acrobat-aware publishing company representatives who were on hand, we converted the completed newspaper page layouts (a mix of QuarkXPress and PageMaker files) to PDF files.

We’re talking Acrobat v. 1.0 here — it had only been announced a few months earlier. We uploaded the batch of completed PDFs to an available FTP site; I posted announcements of the project and of the available files to several commercial online outposts and on the Internet.

When I told participants that they were *not* the first to see these finished newspaper pages, I was not merely being theoretical. Within an hour of posting the announcements came a reply from an online reader in Germany, saying he had downloaded and viewed some of our newspaper stories. Even before the pages had come off the printing press that Friday morning, we had for the first time delivered the newspaper — dubbed the ‘Truly Electronic Times’ — globally … in PDF.

Just for the record, this is *not* the Acrobat product you’re using today, for those who’ve entered the world of PDF more recently. We ran squarely into some of its limitations, which we of course expressed to Adobe at our first opportunity.

Free Readers? No such thing back then. Reader 1.0 initially was a commercial product, could not be freely distributed (without signing a license and reporting downloads quarterly to Adobe); it was available for purchase in bulk. So even though our newspaper pages in PDF were in theory available across the world, the reality was that there likely were few people equipped to view them — a not insignificant problem! (Luckily there was at least _one_ Reader-ready reader.)

We had also quickly learned that the extreme vertical design of the broadsheet newspaper format was and is not ideal for viewing in PDF on a computer monitor. In fact, we may have had one of the earliest discussions on the virtues of re-designing content published online in PDF. Still, our ‘technology demonstration’ was sufficient to illustrate a way the publishing industry might be impacted by new technologies in years to come.

One need only look at the Web today to see the various other more suitable print publication formats that *do* lend themselves well to distribution in PDF — newsletters, reports, catalogs, ebooks and more. In addition, there are numerous good examples of PDF documents optimally designed for on-screen viewing (and interactivity).

Since 1993, I’ve continued working with Acrobat/PDF, as well as communicating with others who’ve discovered its many virtues (and some of its less-virtuous attributes, too). The improvements in the technology have been vast since Acrobat moved from a gleam in Adobe CEO John Warnock’s eye in 1991 to its 1993 release to the current 4.0 version. The range of user applications I’ve observed in that time span is nothing less than amazing.

As I continue navigating the world of Adobe Acrobat in my new Planet PDF role, I’ll regularly share some observations — via articles and occasional columns, in our Planet PDF Forum and elsewhere within the site.

By the way, if you’ve got or know about an especially interesting application tale, we’d love to learn about it.

If you came here to learn about how to use Acrobat/PDF to solve your business problems, we’ll do our best to support you. Part of our own educational efforts include facilitating communication both with, and within, the PDF Community. The topic-specific forums are a great place to ask questions, meet others with similar interests (and problems) and to learn.

The more we all share and collaborate, the greater the rewards.

Remember: ‘It takes a planet … Planet PDF. A World of PDF Resources.’

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About the Author: Kurt Foss

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