The history of PDF

PDF/X-1 – a (very) slowly emerging standard

To solve the reliability issue, a consortium of prepress companies got together and released the PDF/X-1 standard in 1998. PDF/X-1 is based on the PDF 1.2 file specifications but it is a very well defined description of what a PDF file should look like to allow for blind transfers. A PDF/X-1 file is a file in which you are sure that all fonts are included, all high-res images are embedded, and so on.

Although PDF/X-1 is based on PDF 1.2, a number of extra operators were added. They are described in Adobe technote 5188 and include:

  • the possibility to embed extra data like copydot files
  • support for ICC-based colors
  • the definition of a bleed, trim and art-box
  • a key that documents whether the file has already been trapped.

You can find more information on PDF/X on this page and this one.

PDF 1.3 – Listening to prepress needs

Acrobat 4, internally known as ‘Stout’ within Adobe, was launched in April 1999. It brought us PDF 1.3. The new PDF specs included support for:

  • 2-byte CID fonts
  • OPI 2.0 specifications
  • a new color space called DeviceN to improve support for spot colors
  • smooth shading, a technology that allows for efficient and very smooth blends (transitions from one color or tint to another).
  • annotations

Acrobat itself also had its fair share of novelties, including:

  • support for page sizes up to 5080 x 5080 mm, up from 1143 x 1143 mm
  • Webcapture
  • a series of preset configurations in Acrobat Distiller, making it easier to create valid PDF-files.
  • a very confusing change of names: the former Acrobat Exchange was renamed to Acrobat, which also happens to be the name of the entire software suite.
  • easy integration in Microsoft Office.

The initial version of Acrobat 4, aptly numbered 4.0, contained quite a lot of bugs that limited the usefulness of the software for prepress purposes. Users got quite upset when Adobe tried to charge for the bugfix, Acrobat 4.05. Luckily Adobe listened to its users and send a free copy to registered users (We did have to wait 4 months or so for it in Europe).

By the time Acrobat 4.05 was released, it could hardly be disputed that PDF had become an accepted file format for information exchange. More that 100 million copies of Acrobat Reader had been downloaded from the web. In prepress, few people still doubted the usefulness of PDF for file exchange, troubleshooting, and/or soft-proofing.

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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