A New Door Opens For PDF

Just in case you haven’t heard the news, Adobe just announced that the entire PDF 1.7 specification would be submitted to ISO via AIIM. The intent is to take PDF from its current status as a de facto standard and make it into a formally recognized international standard, controlled by a vendor-neutral standards body.

Eighteen years ago, Apple and Microsoft announced a joint effort to create a proprietary replacement for PostScript known as TrueImage and a proprietary replacement for PostScript Type 1 fonts known as TrueType. Only TrueType survived to this day, incorporated into the OpenType font standard format along with the PostScript font format (in CFF guise). When Bill Gates announced the joint effort at Seybold, John Warnock gave an impassioned speech where he announced the opening of the PostScript Type 1 font format specification and said:

This standard is so important in the printing and publishing industry that I’m not going to let it fail.

That statement applies equally well to PDF today, and the stakes are even higher. In fact, virtually every government and company around the world has a stake in the future of the PDF standard. I believe that the history will view this announcement as an historic one for Adobe and even for the software industry as a whole. There are several reasons why I believe this is so:

  • It shows how important the creation of vendor-neutral open standards is to the future of the tech industry. PDF has been an open standard for many, many years: anyone can implement the specification without any restriction. The specification itself was defined by Adobe, although we took input from many customers and partners over the years. Furthermore, there are a number of ISO standards that are based on the PDF specification: PDF/X, PDF/A, and so on. The openness of PDF has been sufficient to make PDF the de facto standard for document exchange, and, not incidentally, has helped make the Acrobat product family a significant source of revenue for Adobe.

    But recently an increasing number of customers have told us that they want document formats that are formally defined, freely available, and controlled by a vendor-neutral standards body. Sun and IBM deserve a lot of credit for being the first large companies to recognize this emerging trend and in response submitting ODF to OASIS (and then ISO). PDF following in ODF’s footsteps is important because the PDF format is one of the building blocks of the web.

    I hope this announcement marks a tipping point in the definition of openness for document formats, such that any future document formats that wish to get widespread industry adoption will need to be equally open.

  • It helps expose, by contrast, the weaknesses of Microsoft’s own standards efforts. Like Adobe, Sun, and IBM, Microsoft has also recognized the trend towards formal standards and as a result is shepherding OOXML thru ISO via ECMA. Unfortunately, Microsoft is trying to have its cake and eat it too, using a committee charter that is rigged: the committee is required to rubber-stamp the format as defined by Microsoft’s implementation for the sake of “compatibility”. Because the standard is really defined only by Microsoft, the OOXML standard fails the vendor-neutrality test in a fundamental way. It remains to be seen whether or not Microsoft will attempt to pull the same trick with XPS.

  • It makes Microsoft’s XPS format even more irrelevant and unnecessary. Why would anyone bother with a competing format this isn’t vendor-neutral, does less, and isn’t nearly as ubiquitous?

For myself, I’m proud that I got to play a small (and I do mean small) role in the process that led up to the announcement. My hat is off to the Adobe management team that made the decision and to the product teams that will have to execute on that decision.

Lastly, on an administrative note, I want to point out that Adobe isn’t announcing anything with respect to the submission of any other document formats to standards organizations, so I can’t speak towards such topics.

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~ by Andrew Shebanow on 28Jan07.

7 Responses to “A New Door Opens For PDF”

  1. Bah, I think I should have posted this comment here instead.

    How will this affect the ability to revoke a license to PDF if the licensee doesn’t follow the spec and corrupts it, potentially via embrace, extend, extinguish?

    [Andrew says] Good question. Unfortunately, I don’t actually know the answer, as I haven’t been involved in the actual submission of the standard to AIIM/ISO and thus don’t know all the details of the terms. I would say that the fact that PDF will now be an ISO standard should make it that much easier to determine whether or not a particular implementation conforms to the standard or not. And personally, I hope that the standards committee can work with Adobe and/or the open source community to develop a compliance test suite.

  2. “PDF has been an open standard for many, many years: anyone can implement the specification without any restriction”

    Oddly enough, I don’t recall that to be the case when Microsoft wanted to offer a “Save to PDF” function in Office 2007. From what I recall, because of Adobes objections (which run contrary to the quote above, I believe), they were forced to remove it from the product and offer it as a plug-in.

    Because of that action, it would seem that PDF is not completely open, but rather, selectively open.

    [Andrew says] And you know we did this because? Oh, right, because Microsoft said so. All I can say is: don’t believe everything you read: Microsoft isn’t exactly what I’d call an unbiased source.

  3. Andrew:

    As with most of what you hear in the blogsphere, it comes down to “he said, she said”.

    Instead of saying not to believe everything I read, could you instead point me to some information on what Adobe’s view on that particular matter is, or perhaps elaborate.

    I agree, Microsoft isn’t an unbiased source, but in all fairness, neither is Adobe, or IBM, or Sun, or anyone else for that matter.

    Hence the request for Adobe’s view on it, so that all the information is out there, and one can come to their own conclusions.

    [Andrew says] Unfortunately, in this case, it all comes down to what Microsoft claimed. I believe Adobe decided it wasn’t worth it to try and fight the PR battle in the press on that particular issue, since Microsoft can always out-PR us given their essentially infinite resources in that area.

  4. One other thing, please don’t make assumptions (i.e. “And you know we did this because?”) I never claimed to know you did anything for any reason or another. I simply said “I recall” which is based on what I have read on various blog sites (yes, Microsoft blog sites, I haven’t started reading Adobe blog sites until recently).

    [Andrew says] Sorry if I over-assumed. But saying “As I recall” isn’t a sufficient qualifier in my opinion.If you said “Microsoft claimed that they were forced to remove” I wouldn’t have reacted the way I did. Besides, sometimes I’m just a smart-ass. Take care.

  5. Andrew: Between you and me, thanks for clairifying that. The discussion could have easily gone the other way, and I for one am glad it didn’t.

  6. If XPS main thrust was to be a replacement of PDF as an exchangeable digital document file format, I would have agreed with your position that it is irrelevant and unnecessary, and then add that Microsoft is more than 10 years behind PDF deployment wise. However, Microsoft is using this for a spool file and a printer page description language – thereby eliminating the need for Adobe anything when a Vista user buys a XPS compliant desktop printer or network enabled printer. Me, I had always thought this was much less about replacing PDF and more about removing Adobe from the document creation and printing equation. As for standards, sorry, but having participated with CGATS, we were more interested in telling a vendor what we needed, and not the least interested in being blind sided by some document was glad handed to us as the answer to some question we never proposed to that vendor. Handing XPS to a standards body is like handing Sonny Barger a thong – He won’t be interested in the first place – and it probably won’t fit anyway.

    [Andrew says] I think the XPSdrv in Vista is a huge step forward from the previous GDI-based print system. However, the fact is that there is nothing in XPS itself that makes it so – if they’d built the new print path on PDF it would have been ever better. At Adobe we have people who’ve put a lot of time into making our apps work with the new print architecture, and print quality has actually gone down compared to the existing GDI system due to a lack of PostScript passthough. We’ve worked around the issue in our own apps.

    As for the rest of your argument, well, let’s just say I don’t get it. You do know Microsoft is in fact promising to submit XPS to a standards body, right?

  7. Yes, I have heard that XPS will be submitted – but to whom ? What does it solve? Will it make better IRS forms? Will my saved as XPS faxes be somehow more reliable or smaller – what does it do better ? Perhaps some standards body will find something that XPS does that they have always had problems doing with PDF – and that group will be cheering – but I simply do not get what it does that PDF already did 10 years ago.

    [Andrew says] XPS doesn’t do interactive forms at all – it is a purely static page representation. They had annotations in the spec originally but that feature got cut.

    As for size, my testing shows PDF and XPS are roughly comparable, though results vary depending on the kind of document. Documents that use a lot of fonts generally do worse with XPS than PDF because they don’t do subsetting of non-Asian fonts.

    I agree completely that XPS breaks no new ground, except perhaps in the area of buzzword compliance. I have yet to hear a convincing story for what problems XPS solves that PDF does not.

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