It Just Works: PDF turns 20!

PDF at 20 birthday cakeIt was early 1995. Researching technology for a new business, I happened across Adobe’s Acrobat Capture 1.01; software to convert scanned pages into searchable PDF files.

I’ll never forget the first time I swiped a mouse over a scanned page to highlight OCRed text behind the image. Wow!

I was looking at “PDF/Image + Hidden Text” (now called “Searchable Image”), and it was a light-bulb moment. I realized this document format could bridge hundreds of years of hard-copy habits with Internet technologies.

On June 15, PDF turns 20. It’s no longer the most fashionable subject for developers, but over the last two decades PDF has remained very cool with customers and end users.

Largely immune to the buzz and hype of Internet technologies PDF still dominates the idea of “an electronic document” worldwide.

PDF endures because PDF just works. You know what you’ve got.

Where it all started

The fundamental concept of PDF, stated plainly in Dr. John Warnock’s famed 1991 “Camelot” paper, does not require technical knowledge:

“…[to] capture documents from any application, send electronic versions of these documents anywhere, and view and print these documents on any machine.”

Since its launch in 1993 the Portable Document Format has made it possible to manage electronic pages from any source; word-processors, layout and graphic design applications, high-end RIPs, CAD, scanners, cameras, phones and more.

Beyond PDF’s capability to faithfully represent the same page in very different places, three visionary bets by Adobe Systems enabled PDF’s success and (not a coincidence) remain the standout smartest moves in the company’s history:

  • Publishing the PDF Reference without cost or obligation, allowing 3rd party developers to create or process PDF files without royalties
  • Making the Reader free so end users could view and print PDF files at no cost
  • Committing to produce PDF software on both Windows and Mac platforms and keeping them (more or less) synchronized in features

These moves were fundamental to spawning PDF’s massive ecosystem of vendors, and prompted institutions to invest in PDF as the electronic document format of record. 20 years later, PDF files number in the tens of billions worldwide.

PDF goes ISO

In the late 1990s, as PDF became more and more accepted, several industries petitioned to have PDF and various subspecies of PDF become international standards, independent of Adobe Systems. PDF/X (eXchange) at the rest of the print industry, was first. PDF/A (Archive) followed in 2005.

In 2008 Adobe Systems donated the PDF Reference itself to the ISO. Since then the Portable Document Format – now ISO 32000 – is managed by volunteers in an open, democratic fashion. Any interested person may join the ISO committee (under ISO rules, of course).

Today we have more PDF standards than ever reflecting the breadth and diversity of this critical format. Besides those already mentioned are PDF/E (Engineering), PDF/VT (Variable/Transactional), PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility), PRC (for 3D PDF) and XMP (for PDF metadata).

Far more than a file format, PDF is a public trust. It’s the electronic hard-copy for every possible document; from train tickets to lab notebooks, from student papers to court records and tax returns.

How long with PDF last?

Both over-used and under-utilized, PDF has set a high standard for something people really need. How long will it last?

Replacing PDF as the generally accepted final-form representation of a document won’t be easy. The monopoly’s in-place, antitrust doesn’t apply, and it’s hard to compete against free!

Meanwhile PDF is still developing; adding new and refining existing capabilities.

As long as humans need rock-solid reliability in electronic documents independent of platform, software or vendor, PDF will be there.

Duff Johnson
PDF Association, Vice Chairman
ISO 32000, Project Co-Leader

About PDF Association

Founded in 2006 as the PDF/A Competence Center, the PDF Association exists to promote the adoption and implementation of International Standards for PDF technology.

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