The PDF Format’s Long-Term Success

Rob Walker, Marker:

An official Adobe history describes the PDF’s goal as being able to “exchange information between machines, between systems, between users in a way that ensured that the file would look the same everywhere it went.” This meant creating “a digital interchange format that preserved author intent,” says David Parmenter, director of engineering for Adobe Document Cloud, “which is, at a really high level, what a PDF tries to do.”

Beneath the highly technical language is something pretty basic: The mission of the PDF is simply to be the digital version of old-fashioned paper.

For then-unforeseen reasons, that mission has proved to be somewhat frustrated by the invention of the smartphone:

Adobe’s most recent and ongoing efforts around the PDF have centered on adapting the format to the smartphone era. Late last year, the company debuted what it calls a “Liquid Mode” option that rejiggers PDFs for easier phone-screen-sized reading. On the creator and developer side, it has recently made the documents easier to embed in websites and is working on the ability to incorporate 3‍-‍dimensional renderings into PDFs.

Is there a market for 3D renderings in PDF form? The PDF format’s simplicity has surely been a key factor in its success.

In fact, if you are reading this on a Mac, an iPhone, or an iPad, you’re looking at PDFs hundreds of times every day. Icons across the system are PDFs — including those in toolbars, the menu bar, and throughout apps — because PDFs can contain infinitely-scalable vector graphics. Mac OS X has always contained PDF elements, but their use was expanded around the time Apple was working on a programmatic resolution-independent user interface defined by XML files. Ultimately, higher resolution interfaces were solved through pixel doubling along both axes, but I wonder what happened to that project.