Who invented the PDF format?

PDF turns 20 years old

Diversity can be confusing: docx, odt, pages, indd - these are just some of the file extensions of digital text documents and each of them requires a very specific software. The document cannot be opened without the right program. The "Portable Document Format" (PDF), which will be 20 years old this month and, according to its inventor, is the most widely used file format in the world, is ideal as a standard format.

"Unfortunately, the dream of a paperless office has still not come true," says Ulrich Isermeyer, Munich manager at Adobe, the Californian software company where PDF was developed two decades ago. However, with its extensive possibilities, PDF can implement this vision.

Adobe founder John Warnock began the project in 1990 with the aim of creating a universal language for the exchange of documents: These should look exactly like the sender designed them for the recipient, with the same fonts and identical layout across all operating systems and devices .

When the Acrobat 1.0 software appeared on June 15, 1993, this first PDF program did not meet with much enthusiasm. The package consisted of a tool for creating PDFs, the reader for reading PDFs and the "Distiller" for converting files in the Postscript to PDF technology standard that was important for the printing industry at the time. Because PDF should also support the so-called prepress, as a digital layout for printing brochures or books.

The triumphant advance of PDF only began when Adobe decided in 1994 to provide the reader for free. This created the prerequisite for being able to use the new format on millions of computers and mobile devices. The reader has been available as an extension for the web browser since 1995, so that PDF documents are also becoming increasingly popular on the Internet.

PDF has been an ISO standard since 2008. "This means that PDF no longer belongs to Adobe, we have handed it over to ISO," says Isermeyer. The standard is soon to be revised, with around 500 different companies involved. In addition to Adobe, many other software companies now also offer computer programs and smartphone apps that can be used to create, edit and view PDF documents.

For certain purposes there are now variants such as PDF / E for the integration of interactive 3D models or PDF / A for long-term archiving. "Even 50 years from now, a document saved as a PDF / A will still be readable," says Adobe manager Isermeyer.

The long-term archiving expert at the German National Library in Frankfurt am Main, Tobias Steinke, is more skeptical: "We are of the opinion that you cannot reliably predict how long a file format will be valid, no file format is for eternity." For its legal mandate to store all digital publications in addition to books, the library therefore creates metadata for each document in order to identify in good time which type of documents should be converted into a more up-to-date format. From the point of view of the expert, open and standardized formats are generally better suited for archiving than formats that are only maintained by certain companies. "PDF / A is a relief for us, we were also involved in the ISO standardization."

The 20-year-old technology has repeatedly made negative headlines with security gaps. "PDF is a complicated beast, a format with so many functions that any bad guys can use it as a target for attack," says Marc Rogers, security chief at the Defcon hacker conference and malware researcher at the software specialist Lookout. In 20 years there have also been some improvements in this regard, such as security in a sandbox structure and more transparency. However, it is also important that users always have the latest version of the reader software installed and that they do not click away security updates as an annoying interruption.

The development of the new format has now largely been completed, says Isermeyer. In terms of file size or speed, however, there are still options for optimization, as well as the support of special functions. Version 12 of Adobe Acrobat should appear next year - official information is not yet available. The Acrobat will continue to be sold as a single package, while Adobe is now using software as a service for Photoshop and other creative tools. PDF is well prepared for the future of the web, says Isermeyer: "HTML5 and PDF complement each other like Ebony and Ivory." (bsc)

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