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Adobe’s Portable Document Format: The Document Standard for Publishing’s Future

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The biggest challenge (and incidentally, the biggest opportunity) for publishers and printers in the next decade is dealing prudently with the rapid changes in publishing technology. To add some urgency to the matter, the rate of change is accelerating. The major milestones of publishing technology evolution have been separated by ever-shortening time spans-Gutenberg’s letterpress to photolithography (450 years), photolithography to desktop publishing (50 years), desktop publishing to Web publishing (10 years). And in the next five years, we’ll see the implementation of new publishing products and services as a result of broadband Web servers, fiber optic networks, Digital Versatile Discs (DVD), and High Definition Television (HDTV).Every innovation offers new efficiencies in distribution, lower overhead costs, better access to information, and new cross-marketing potential. Consequently the demand for repurposing published work and legacy documents has been skyrocketing.With rapid evolution being the norm, the challenges before publishers are many. Aside from the obvious copyright and merchandising issues that need to be faced, there is one practical issue that is important to all publishers: Which document format provides the best distribution efficiencies and the broadest range of uses, while reducing the cost of repurposing documents now and in the future?A clue to the answer can be found in digital publishing’s recent history: Flashback to 1986 . . . Apple, Aldus, and Linotype are touring the country, introducing a configuration of equipment hardware and software prototypes that is poised to revolutionize print publishing. The “glue” that holds them together is the elegant “postscript” file format developed by Adobe Systems. Instead of producing coarse mosaics of pixels suitable only for low-resolution matrix imaging, postscript defines text and artwork as vectors-geometric equations of vertices and curves that are infinitely smooth, infinitely scalable, and extremely compact. The only limitation to output quality is the resolution capability of the hardware to process it. This new approach adds digital precision and irresistible efficiencies to the design, production, and distribution of publications.Fast forward to 1998 . . . The “dinosaurs” of industrial age publishing are all but extinct. Now every digital publishing prototype has spawned generations of mutants-a confusing mix of competing platforms, scores of formats, thousands of fonts of various types, new media, new delivery systems, new output devices, and new investment options with billions of dollars at stake.Which format will hold this era of publishing evolution together? Ask Adobe Systems. Their postscript format-the elegant page description code that provided the foundation of an invigorating publishing era-is still at the heart of its evolution. But it too has metamorphosed. Its new iteration, the Portable Document Format (PDF), is now viewable as a scalable online proof. And it provides a foundation upon which many of the splintering trends in publishing can find common footing.

P . . . as in “Portable”

Nothing is more portable than digital data. It travels from source to destination at the speed of light-with or without telephone lines or cable. The problem with most digital data is that the programs that generate it are usually configuration-specific. If you create a file on a Macintosh, with Type 1 fonts, addressing .tif bitmap images and utilizing RGB color models, you had better have a similar configuration to read and process the data. Furthermore, because much of publishing (i.e., Web networks) is being handled by low bandwidth (“incredibly slow”) modems, these files must be very small to be of practical use.Postscript files are mostly universal from a configuration standpoint but they are very large and require access to configuration-specific fonts. The PDF format, on the other hand, provides all of postscript’s universal features with the advantages of embedded fonts, configurable color models, and very efficient compression. How efficient depends on the content of the original (% vector vs. % bitmap) and the intended use of the document (whether for print or Web publishing), but the amount of compression can be astounding-as high as 99% in some cases.For a practical business example, look at AdSEND, a service offered by Associated Press that ad agencies have been using for about two years. AdSEND can beam ads to over 1,400 recipient newspapers in the matter of a few hours. Their trafficking software requires a Macintosh (this year) but the source files could come from any platform, running virtually any printable software, with fonts embedded irrespective of those owned by the subscribing publications. And the delivered PDF file can be processed using Acrobat Reader or Exchange software specifically tailored for the recipient computer. Once received, these digital ads can be inserted into the newspaper layout for either black & white or color printing-and the quality is excellent.

D . . . as in “Document”

For publishers and graphic designers, the true test of any document is its ability to be reproduced in high quality on a printing press. With all of the new trends-short-run color, print-on-demand, the proliferation of alternative printing devices, and Web document serving-it is incumbent that documents be flexible and that they fit well in printing and distribution workflows.Image Integrity: PDF files can contain high-resolution information. Their vector components are always perfectly scalable and resolvable. Their bitmap components can be stored at 2500 dpi, if necessary. These files can also retain spot color information that can be discriminated in the separation process.Page Independence: A single PDF file can contain many pages of different sizes. Each page may have been generated by a different program running on a different computer configuration. Furthermore, job ticket pages can be added to these documents that will direct instruct equipment how to route each page through the printing workflow. Example: Page one disseminates the workflow instructions, pages two and three get routed to the Indigo digital press, tabloid page 4 is routed to the four-color platemaker, and the rest is transmitted to a Xerox Docutech. The same document could be simultaneously routed to an impositioning RIP for longer runs, a color virtual proofer, and/or a Web server for immediate online viewing. A PDF document has content optimized for speed, size, and flexibility of application.Document Intelligence: Adobe has made sure that PDF files can be easily indexed, cataloged, and searched. They can be hyperlinked within and across documents on CD-ROMs, hard drives, Web servers (Intranet and Internet). They are compatible with all major EDM (Electronic Document Management) systems. They can contain fields for inputting text and data and the fields can be programmed to self-verify prior to submission to databases. Fields on PDF pages can also be used to display data and images retrieved from databases-like catalog options, color chips, pricing information, personnel data, and signatures. And PDF files can be protected with built-in security features to control access, limit printing, and prohibit editing, if desired.

F . . . as in “Format”?

Designers, publishers, and printers have been shell shocked with too many formats-.doc, .xls, .eps, .ppt, .gis, .jpg, .gif, .html .rtf, .pict, .bmp, .pcx, .png-to name just a few. Some formats, particularly .html, have been “held hostage” by software manufacturers willing to tweak the standard to provide a temporary marketing advantage over a competitor. However, no one touches PDF except Adobe Systems, and there is no competing format designed to do what it does. Better yet, PDF can be used to consolidate the text, bitmap, and vector components of all of the above formats into a single-page or multi-page document. It can even serve as a presentation window for imported Quicktime sound and video clips.The resiliency of a format over time is very much a crucial issue for publishers. Postscript has survived since the dawning of desktop publishing and has become the de facto standard for all pre-press operations. PDF, a descendent of Postscript, will carry the format forward into the foreseeable future. This means that the expected “shelf life” of a PDF document is longer than most other formats. It can be created from and reverted to postscript. Who believes in the shelf life of PDF documents? Try the US Internal Revenue Service-PDF files are the only format that they update all tax forms in for distribution over the Internet.


Clearly, the Portable Document Format meets the challenge posed at the beginning of this article. The sooner PDF is understood, recognized, and broadly accepted as the foundation for publishing’s technological future, the sooner designers, publishers, and printers will benefit from the advantages it offers.

Want to Know More about PDF?

To explore PDF further, visit the PDF Research Companion Web site at http://www.performancegraphics.com. Here you can find more extensive explanations and PDF document examples for the concepts introduced in this article as well as access links for additional study. There are also several excellent books available on the subject of PDF. Two of them are published by Adobe Press and distributed free as PDF files over the Internet. They can both be accessed through the What’s New Web page of the PDF Research Companion. One book is “Internet Publishing with Acrobat” by Gordon Kent. The other, “From Paper to Web” by Tony McKinley, concerns converting printed legacy documents directly into PDF format documents.

C. Scott Miller is President of Performance Graphics, a graphic arts consulting, production, and services company located in Los Angeles, CA. He can be reached at miller@performancegraphics.com or via his company’s Web site at http://www.performancegraphics.com.


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