PDF – The Universal Publishing Format

When professional publishing started to move from proprietary systems to the desktop in the mid 1980s, it was PostScript that facilitated its explosive growth. The democratization of the desktop computer, however, was to have an even greater impact on publishing. Today, publishing is rapidly finding its way into the hands of the masses. Many of the barriers that have kept publishing in the realm of professionals have started to disappear.

There is an explosion of new publishing tools that facilitate this movement. And this, coupled with the decreased cost and increased bandwidth for distribution, both in print and in electronic form, are creating an explosion in publishing. However, this explosive unplanned growth has fostered the proliferation of many file formats and created an almost Babel-like reality. There are competing platforms, applications and distribution formats for both print and electronic publishing. This confusion has created inefficiencies throughout the publishing process, from concept to distribution.

Enter Acrobat and PDF. Just as the desktop computer helped democratize publishing, the PDF file format is also playing an important part of that ultimate democratization. Its roots as a platform-independent format that could capture content and — equally as important — intent, address some of the core issues that were raised by the earlier confusion.

As PDF has evolved, it has continued to address many of the other requirements of publishing for the masses. For example, while even in its early days PDF could facilitate both print and electronic publishing requirements, it couldn’t address variability. This requirement, whether it was the variability of non-static distribution (such as variable display sizes) or the variability of content (as is increasingly demanded in both print and the Web), makes it increasingly important to the future of publishing. And with publishing production becoming a broad-based, collaborative process, the new proofing and communication tools in Acrobat 5 and PDF 1.4 also address the needs of an integrated publishing process.

The only real competition PDF faces in the quest for a universal publishing format is XML and its companion format XSL. While this dynamic duo has the potential to handle most of the requirements of the future of publishing, including the identification and stylization of content, it is missing one core requirement: the transfer of intent.

Publishing is more than just the collection of content; it is also the packaging and ultimately the distribution of content. The content packaging process is sometimes discounted in this era of template-based database publishing, yet the originator’s intent can ultimately be as valuable as the content itself.

PDF not only affords a perfect container for content, but it also maintains the intent as part of the package. And while I don’t believe that any single tool or format can be considered the holy grail of publishing, perhaps we now have found the Universal Publishing Format.

Previously published in ‘The Seybold Bulletin‘ during 2002 and re-published with the author’s expressed permission.

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About the Author: David Zwang

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