11 July 2019

Why does Adobe's PDF Frankenstein refuse to disappear?

Thanks, Adobe. The Frankenstein monster you created (with good intentions) way back in 1993 just refuses to go away. Yes, your PDF file format still exists and shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon, despite IT folk hoping it does just that. Why is this?

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. 
With such functionality, PDFs were an instant success. They were a classic case of an easy fix to a massive problem, and we're still using them today. So if they are so good at what they do, why are IT professionals trying to write them off?

PDFs are basically just a digital representation of a printed document. Yet in today's world, we're increasingly consuming output on the web. PDFs were originally created for offline use, to share information between users who'd save a file to their local machine. So why not just deliver all output on the web? After all:
  • 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.

Creating a PDF today is as easy as saving a file as a PDF file type. It's an option in just about every application on your laptop. As authors, we control the look and feel, and end users see it as nature intended. For content users, it meets their needs, so why should they change? 

PDFs remain popular to this day because they solve a problem. They're not perfect in today's world, but no one has come up with a better method. So until they do, us IT folk will just have to live with them.

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