The history of PDF

PDF 1.1

Acrobat 2 became available in November 1994. It supported the new PDF 1.1 file format which added support for:

  • external links
  • article threads
  • security features
  • device-independent color
  • notes

Acrobat 2.0 itself also got some nice enhancements, including a new architecture of Acrobat Exchange to support plug-ins and the possibility to search PDF files.

Adobe themselves were one of the first big users of PDF. They distributed all documents for developers as PDF files. Another early adopter of PDF were the US tax authorities who distributed tax forms as PDF files.

Acrobat 2.1 added multimedia support with the possibility of adding audio or video data to a PDF document.

In those days, PDF was not the only attempt at creating a portable device and operating system independent file format. Its biggest competitor was a product called Common Ground. Envoy and DejaVu were two other competing products.

In 1995, Adobe began shipping Acrobat Capture for a rather steep 4000 US dollar. At the same time, Adobe also started adding PDF support to many of its own applications, including FrameMaker 5.0 and PageMaker 6.

PDF 1.2 – the prepress world wakes up

In November 1996, Adobe launched Acrobat 3.0 (code name: Amber) and the matching PDF 1.2 specifications. PDF 1.2 was the first version of PDF that was really usable in a prepress environment. Besides forms, the following prepress related options were included:

  • support for OPI 1.3 specifications
  • support for the CMYK color space
  • spot colors could be maintained in a PDF
  • halftone functions could be included as well as overprint instructions.

The release of a plug-in to view PDF files in the Netscape browser increased the popularity of PDF files on the booming Internet. Adobe also added the possibility to link PDF files to HTML pages and vice versa. PDF also slowly began to get accepted by the graphic arts industry. Initially, the black-and-white digital printing market began using PDF for output on fast Xerox digital presses.

In Acrobat 3, the open architecture of Acrobat Exchange finally began to pay off and a lot of interesting prepress extensions appeared in ’97 and ’98, including several essential prepress tools.

  • PitStop and CheckUp from Enfocus software and CrackerJack from Lantanarips were some of the early Acrobat plug-ins.
  • Global Graphics had already added native PDF support to their Jaws RIP in 1993. In 1997 they added the same capability to their much more popular Harlequin RIP.
  • Agfa was the first major company that promoted the use of PDF for full-color commercial printing with its Apogee system, launched in 1998. Other manufacturers followed soon after.

Although vendors pushed hard to get PDF of the ground, the market was a bit slow to react. This was mainly due to the fact that the use of PDF required additional tools as well as some know-how on the file format, its limitations, and curiosities. People also got disappointed in PDF when they discovered that it is a very open standard. Although the PDF standard was usable in a prepress environment, there were simply too many ways in which a perfectly valid but unusable PDF-file could be created.

11 thoughts on “The history of PDF

  1. my observation here is something you might be able to confirm and add to your ‘history of pdf’ blog page… but Adobe was not the first to have a truly cross-platform full color electronic document viewing technology. Frame Technology, publisher of ‘FrameMaker’ (a long/structured document production software), had a companion viewing application, known as ‘FrameViewer’. It ran on Windows, Mac, and various flavors of Unix. If you check the records, Adobe purchased Frame Technology around the time of this. I personally believe the acquisition was to acquire/understand/leverage-off-of their ‘FrameViewer’ technology before Adobe fully deployed PDF.

  2. I may be mistaken, but I was told by the printer that my 1999 book, The Grammar of Graphics, was the first book ever published in full color using PDF. The publisher was Springer Verlag. The printer was Canadian. They used a beta copy of Adobe PDF composing software and printed and bound my PDF files that I had produced using FrameMaker and Distiller. I had checked with a number of US printers (Donnelly, etc.) before I found the one in Canada willing to try out the Adobe beta software in production.

    1. I worked in a prepress beaureau in the late 90s. AGFA had introduced using PDF for commercial printing in 1998.

  3. Thanks for this very informative article. I was in the printing/pre-press business back in the ’90s when PDF first came on the scene, so it was interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at its development. In addition to Common Ground and the other cited potential competitors to PDF, the name “Timbuktu” sticks in my mind as one of that group. Am I “mis-remembering” here? Some might find it of interest that, even though I was a Mac PageMaker and Freehand user for many years, for the past five or six years I’ve been using a Windows-based DTP application called Serif PagePlus, one of whose most significant advantages is its uncanny ability to parse PDF files into editable PagePlus objects and text frames (assuming, of course, that the PDF text is not scanned images — it doesn’t do OCR) for extensive editing or re-purposing of PDF content. I’ve not used any recent versions of Acrobat Professional, but from what I can gather, PP put AP to shame in this regard. A very hand tool to have in one’s “kit”.

  4. Is there any indication that PDF was ever a commercial success for Acrobat. I´m looking for a discussion on its business model.

    1. I don’t quite understand the question. PDF is a file format, Acrobat is the software to create or process such files. I assume that you are curious whether PDF was a commercial success for Adobe? Since it is impossible to make money off a file format, Adobe has never had any direct revenue from PDF. But the popularity of PDF has enabled them to sell tons of Acrobat licenses. There have been quarters where it was their most profitable product range. By controlling the PDF standard and tailoring their software to use its full capabilities, Adobe has managed to make InDesign the most popular design application on the market. The limited PDF support in QuarkXPress is one of the reasons that product has lost marketshare. So has PDF been good for Adobe’s revenue: Yes, it definately has.

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