PDF files

Taking the ‘P’ Out Of PDF

Gee RanasinhaPrint, Technology

As you might have seen, Adobe is now shipping Acrobat 9, after announcing it at DRUPA.

Apart from the fact that the “Standard” and “Pro Extended” versions are available for Windows-only, some noteworthy features are:

  • The ability to embed video (FLV or H.264) into PDF, including mark-up features
  • Content management via PDF Portfolio feature
  • 256 bit encryption
  • Content-only softproofing, including online collaboration on acrobat.com
  • Ability to check PDF standards compliance.

I was invited to a pre-release conference call and demo a couple of weeks before the announcement, and I must say that the demonstrations of the new “PDF Portfolio” features, integrating websites, Flash and QuickTime content, etc. were impressive. Impressive, that is, if the PDF file is the final destination for the file’s content.

But what about PDFs destined for the print industry?

PDF For Print Doesn’t Seem To Be Important Any More

PDF, as we all know, stands for “Portable Document Format.” By including the ability to embed movies and Flash animations, hasn’t PDF suddenly become a lot less portable? OK, virtually any Mac and PC out there today can handle Flash, but what about other OS’s, such as Linux, where (going on past performance) Adobe’s Flash support has been pretty flaky? Furthermore, what happens with all those handhelds – Blackberry’s, SideKicks, Treo’s and the like – that have no problem rendering static PDF files but start to choke when rendering video? The Apple iPhone doesn’t have Flash support at all – even with its soon-to-be-released v2.0 software upgrade.

Then there’s the real doozy: What happens when you throw this PDF, now full of bloated non-printable content, into a RIP? Just when you thought that you were OK to render live text, or transparent objects, or PDF layers, now you’ve got FLVs, MOVs and goodness-knows-what-else shoved in there. If a client sends you a PDF with, for example, an embedded Flash object (even if it’s a static object) and the animation doesn’t appear in print, who’s to blame?

PDF Only Exists Because Of The Printing Industry

If you look back into the history of the PDF file format, you’ll see things weren’t always sweetness and lightness in the early days. Adobe originally developed PDF as a platform-agnostic way to display formatted documents – i.e. layout, typography and so on would look the same on Macs, PCs and (later) the other platforms Adobe would support.

But in the early days, when PDF was called IPS (“Interchange PostScript”), no-one was touching it. Initially the format’s capabilities were severely restricted, to the point where it may have been better than sending Word files, but not by much. Then there was the pricing, which was pretty ludicrous. In the early 1990s Adobe priced the tool to create PDF files, Adobe Distiller, at $2,495. You even had to pay $50 for Adobe Reader!

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when PDF1.2 was released, that the print and prepress world began to take notice. PDF1.2 supported printing needs such as the CMYK color space, OPI, spot colors, and halftone function data.

The printing industry, long handicapped by proprietary vendor file formats, restrictive font licensing, and closed production methodologies, took to PDF like a duck to water. The initiative was led by Agfa – the first major printing systems manufacturer adopting a PDF-centric (if not strictly PDF-native at the time) production workflow. Creating PDFs that were fit for printing was still very difficult. It was the printing industry, publishers such as Time Inc., and satellite organizations such as the DDAP and the Ghent PDF Workgroup that lobbied for the inclusion of procedures, safeguards, and standards in PDF file creation, exchange, and print output.

OK, enough of the history lesson. My point is Adobe owes the printing industry big time for the format’s current dominance.

I have often heard it said that Adobe aren’t really interested in the print industry and are commercially focussed on “the pink hair brigade” – the (clearly much larger) market of designers, illustrators, photographers and web designers. Regardless of whether this is true, Adobe’s re-positioning of PDF as the “one size fits all” container for multimedia content must surely stick in the throats of PDF stalwarts throughout the print, publishing and packaging industries.