Practical Smart PDF – When they ask: ‘Why PDF?,’ Show Them!

For this article we’d like to introduce our overall theme. We are working professionals who have to come up with practical, and most importantly workable, solutions for our clients every day. Many of you are probably in a similar situation. The clients are not interested in the tools, they are concerned only with the results. With this in mind, let’s first talk about the reasons why we have used PDF as the tool of choice for a diverse array of solutions. While some of the items may be obvious, it’s never a bad idea to clarify them on occasion.

Why PDF? they usually ask.

Unfortunately, most people who might be familiar with PDF only think in terms of static on-screen documents (‘paper-to-screen’) or as a prepress tool. And frankly we are not too sure if Adobe’s ‘ePaper’ campaign has done much to change this preconception so far. So, here are some of the advantages of PDF, roughly in order of importance , and some real-life examples.

Contents integrity

Most of the focus on PDF has been on its appearance integrity, or in other words its what-you-see-is-what-you-really-get quality. This is what made it so attractive to prepress people and graphics professionals. But here, let’s focus on the less obvious aspect: content integrity. It is important to stress here that for every area where PDF might be used other than for prepress, contents integrity is more important than appearance integrity.

Appearance integrity is merely a side effect of the contents integrity. The same feature of PDF that keeps your fonts and graphics appearing just the way you intended them to, also means that the actual contents are complete and inviolate. This is a very important consideration for situations where the contents of the document is crucial.

A real-life example: a bank needs to have an online, legally binding contract form. The have to make sure that the document the end user signs is exactly what they have sent out, and that besides the information the end user has to enter, nothing gets changed. To ensure this, the document must be one single entity, and it must have the means for detecting, displaying and reversing modifications (regardless of whether those modifications were done on purpose or unintentionally). The PDF format has these means with the combination of password protection and digital signatures. Other plsatforms using a multitude of entities to cmopose the document can, of course, be set up in a similar way, but in that case, this modification mechansim must be implemented for ALL bits and pieces of the completed document.

banking contract formThe screenshot here shows one page from a fairly complex banking contract form. Each word of that document is legally binding, so it’s absolutely necessary that it is secure.

Complex forms requiring many or difficult calculations

In a closed environment such as on an intranet, whenever you have complex forms or other columnar data files you can always resort to Excel. But what about those situations where you must distribute forms to hundreds, even thousands of people, who may be accessing the form and you have no control over their computing environment? What you must do then is to provide the functionality in the document, and also can provide the tool to run it.

Acrobat PDF is fully programmable using Javascript. The functions available are sufficient for even the most complex forms, and it allows you to control contents and appearance of the information. You can for example, show the fields for additional information when and only when a certain option has been selected by the user. This lets you create cleaner forms which are easier to fill out, and which can have verified contents, making sure that the information is consistent and complete. This means also that the need for corrections, or of getting ‘bad data’ because of poorly filled out forms, is considerably reduced.

The screenshot here shows a rather complex form for a large school system in Germany. The cells are calculated both left to right and up-down. Each entry can beverified through built-in fail/safes within the Acrobat form, and the form itself can be distributed via CD-ROM or the web. Imagine trying to create a form like this in HTML! (screenshot:maissform.gif)

Forms that aren’t forms – really complex documents.

The possibilities of JavaScript in PDF make it possible to push the frontiers of the term ‘form’ way farther. The resulting documents then look and function like standalone applications rather than forms.

Here is a working example [NOTE: this file is being updated and is currently unavailable] for you to experiment with. It’s been a long-time dream of engineers and engineering students to have all those equations in their handbooks becoming evaluatable. The sample demo shows how to evaluate various dimensions used in the mechanics of a solid body with rectangular cross section. Based on the length and width of the rectangle, all other values are calculated. This example shows a few more features. It lets you select the decimal sign character. it lets you select the number of significant digits, which determines the magnitude a value will be displayed in exponent form, and it also allows to specify whether trailing zeroes in the mantissa should be suppressed. This example also lets you put together tables of the calculated values.

To the casual user it doesn’t even look like a PDF – it may look like a mini-CAD calculator. But it runs in Acrobat Reader! Imagine being able to add this kind of interactivity to all kinds of technical or educational documents.

Secure code

One of the biggest advantages of the smart PDF document is that the JavaScript code has no access to the outside world, in particular no access to the file system of the computer it is running on. This means that a PDF with JavaScript can not be used to do bad things to the computer, and it can not be used to transport any kind of virus. This allows to implement PDF based applications in sensitive environments.

Appearance integrity and printability

This is the feature of PDF that’s been most widely marketed ever since its inception. But think beyond prepress and think about some typical office scenarios. For example, if you want to print out a page of valuable information from a typical web page, unless the designer has provided a specially tweaked printable version, you are out of luck – your printed output will be useless. With PDF you don’t even have to think twice about it.

Another aspect of Acrobat is its on-screen appearence. Since we also design web sites and consult on HTML and CSS-based Javascript, we know all too well the hoops a web designer has to go through to ensure that a page will look more or less the same on all platforms and with the two major browsers. In a PDF document 12 point Times Roman is always the same, no matter where you’re viewing it, and graphical elements appear exactly where you placed them.

While it is also possible using other technologies such as Flash to ensure that what you designed is what you see, Flash is not nearly as flexible a vehicle as PDF is…and that’s not even considering the accessibility issue. PDF contains readable text. Flash is a purely graphical format. (But at least one of us would love to at least have the ability to embed Flash files – now that LiveMotion is almost ready to be released, perhaps that will happen? Hint hint.)


It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that PDF is one of the most portable file formats around. Yes, HTML is also portable, but you still need a browser. Acrobat Reader is relatively compact and does not require a browser to run. Plus, for online viewing the browser plug-in is stable and easy to use.

Manageability of large amounts of information

For distribution of large documents such as training manuals, Acrobat has few peers in terms of ease of use and manageability. Acrobat has always had the ability to catalog and index a large amount of pages in logical order. In many cases, it is very useful to have information locally, so that one does not need to connect to the Internet for looking up reference material. Indexing with Catalog creates a very fast lookup system.

There are many other advantages to Acrobat of course, which we will be spotlighting in later articles. But hopefully we’ve started you thinking about a couple of different ways in which you could use this great tool, not to mention some fresh arguments for convincing your boss or clients. If you have an innovative use of Acrobat, we’d love to see it. Also, if you have any questions about a particular problem, please email us and we may feature it in a future article. (Note: Please ask more basic questions on the mailing list since there are lots of people who can help you out there.)

In some future articles, we will be featuring ‘how-tos’. The skill levels required for
each solution will range from intermediate to expert level, but we will always tell you what
you need to know before tackling each project.

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About the Author: Max Wyss and Makiko Itoh

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