It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Portable Document Format. Thanks to PDF, you can distribute documents to people – and they can read it without knowing what type of application created it.
Consider the world before PDF’s debut in 1990. If someone sent you a legal contract to review, and it was created by WordPerfect, you couldn’t read it unless you had WordPerfect. If your architect created a drawing in AutoCAD, you couldn’t print it unless you had AutoCAD. Sure, your other word processing or computer-aided-design application might have a WordPerfect or AutoCAD import filter, but it might not render things precisely accurately.
In a world without PDF, the laser printer and the fax machine serve as the de facto document exchange standard. In our world, where data flows electronically, there are certainly plenty of ways of sharing content. XML, for example, lets you communicate the data within a contract or a CAD drawing. But when it comes to faithfully reproducing the look-and-feel of information, especially information that’s designed for paper instead of for pixels, nothing beats PDF. Nothing even comes close.
That’s why, for example, BZ Media uses PDF to distribute electronic editions of all three of its publications, SD Times, Software Test & Performance and Systems Management News. The fact that some pages are created in QuarkXPress, some in Adobe Illustrator, and some in Adobe InDesign, doesn’t matter a bit: we assemble a PDF, and that PDF is identical to the print editions. You can view the PDF version of the publication online, download it for your personal archive, e-mail it with friends, click on hyperlinks, print some or all of its pages on any printer. It’s portable, it’s platform-neutral and it’s open.
Best of all, it’s going to stay open. Adobe has been a remarkably good steward of PDF, and has eschewed attempts to lock it into specific platforms, or to force customers to purchase “premium” readers. Even so, I’m delighted that Adobe has surrendered the PDF format to the International Organization for Standardization, and that ISO has published version 1.7 of the PDF spec as ISO 32000-1:2008.
Alan Bryden, secretary-general of the standards body, said, “As an ISO standard, we can ensure that this useful and widely popular format is easily available to all interested stakeholders. The standard will benefit both software developers and users by encouraging the propagation and dissemination of a common technology that cuts across systems and is designed for long term survival.” That’s the point, exactly.