The history of PDF

Illustrator 9 and PDF 1.4 – Acrobat will have to wait

In Mid 2000, Adobe did something weird: they released Illustrator 9. Although launching a new version of a drawing application is not that bizarre, Illustrator 9 did have one amazing feature: it was the first application to support PDF 1.4 and its transparency feature. This was the first time Adobe did not accompany a new version of PDF with a new version of Acrobat. They also did not release the full specs of PDF 1.4, although technote 5407 documented the transparency support in PDF 1.4.

Acrobat 5 (codename: Brazil)

In May 2001 Acrobat 5 did finally show up and PDF 1.4 became a reality. The file format itself had not changed that much. For prepress, the things worth mentioning include:

  • the addition of transparency support, which allows an object like text or an image to see through.
  • improved security, including 128-bit encryption and the option of setting the quality of printing (you can define that a PDF can be printed but only in low resolution)

For non-prepress users, Adobe also added some goodies to the PDF 1.4 file format:

  • There was improved support for JavaScript, including JavaScript 1.5 and better integration with databases.
  • ‘Tagged PDFs’ are PDF files that also contain structural information about the data that are represented by the PDF document. This means that meta-information like defining titles, blocks of text,… can be part of a PDF-document.
    • This makes it easier to create PDF-files that can adapt themselves to the device they will be used upon. This new feature is mainly meant for the emerging market of ebooks, since it allows PDF files to be repurposed so they can be used on a wider variety of systems. Adobe has started shipping a version of Acrobat Reader that runs on PalmOS PDA’s.
    • It will also make it easier to repurpose content

Most users were more pleased with all of the new features that Acrobat 5 itself offered. Prepress users enjoyed the following enhancements:

  • Acrobat 5 itself can correctly display overprints. So if a user puts a yellow box in overprint on a cyan background, Acrobat 5 can display the resulting green box. Please note that this option is switched off by default.
  • Acrobat 5 can also perform batch operations that can be used, among others, to export folders full of PDF files to EPS-es.
  • Distiller 5 can compress images that use DeviceN colors. This means that PDF files containing multitones will be a lot smaller.
  • Acrobat and Distiller 5 also use an improved color management engine, known as ‘ACE’, which provides finer control.
  • Annotating PDF-files is more flexible in Acrobat 5 and can also happen across the internet.

Acrobat 5 was a more significant upgrade for non-prepress users:

  • The forms-functionality was enhanced a lot.
  • The user interface of Acrobat resembled Microsoft Office applications a lot more. The integration of Acrobat within Office had also improved.
  • You could start Distiller or Catalog from within Acrobat.
  • Thumbnails are created automatically when a PDF file is opened in Acrobat 5.
  • There are more and improved export-filters, including an option to export data from a PDF to the RTF file format. This made it easier to maintain the appearance of files when exporting them to word processors.
  • Interestingly enough, Acrobat 5 was also a downgrade for some users: Adobe replaced the ‘Paper capture’ plug-in that could OCR scanned pages to create a true text-based PDF by a fairly limited Web service.

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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