I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Technical Writers and other IT professionals say that PDFs are on the way out. Yet here we are over 25 years later, and the output format is still alive and kicking. No other document file format can boast such longevity. To understand why this is, we need to look at why the PDF file was created.
PDF stands for Portable Document Format. Adobe created the file format to address the problem of sharing documents. Back in the early 1990s, we were increasingly using computers to create content. Yet with the sheer variety of file formats, word processing applications, hardware, and operating systems, there was no method of sharing these documents without losing formatting, fonts, page layouts, and sometimes even the content itself!
The PDF file format revolutionised the sharing of digital documents by ensuring that
- The layout and graphics remained intact, thanks to the use of Adobe's proprietary PostScript language.
- Fonts were embedded in the file, meaning you didn't need them installed on your machine to see how the author intended you to see their work.
- All the document's elements (e.g. images) were contained in the file. These days this includes 3D graphics, video, and animation.
- Reviewing and commenting on a PDF is a user experience nightmare.
- PDFs don’t change size to fit the browser window.
- A PDF's size and aspect ratio is a poor match for most screens.
- Reading PDFs on mobile devices is difficult at best.
- A PDF's file size is much larger than web file formats.
- It’s difficult to track a PDF file's use.
- They're less accessible for those with disabilities.
- Once converted to PDF, it's difficult to reuse the file's content without an application to convert it back into something useful.