The history of PDF

PDF 1.5 & Acrobat 6 – More choice for already confused users

In April 2003, Adobe announced Acrobat 6 which started shipping late May. The internal codename for Acrobat 6 was ‘Newport’. As usual, the new version of Acrobat also brought along a new version of PDF, version 1.5.

PDF 1.5 brings along a number of new features to will probably take a pretty long time before they get implemented or supported in applications. The new stuff includes.

  • Improved compression techniques including object streams & JPEG 2000 compression
  • Support for layers
  • Improved support for tagged PDF

The Acrobat software itself actually offers far more immediate advantages than the new PDF file format.

Acrobat Reader got renamed Adobe Reader and now also includes the functions of the Adobe eBook Reader. Unfortunately, this application has also grown and now has a file size that is perhaps over 1000 times larger than most office-type PDF documents that people want to look at.

Acrobat Professional is the high-end version of Acrobat 6, geared towards prepress use. It offers a plethora of new features.

  • Integrated preflighting
  • PDF Optimizer
  • Rulers and guides
  • Job tickets
  • PDF/X support
  • Separation output & a separation preview
  • Transparency flattener
  • Layers
  • Measurement & magnifying tools
  • A new user interfaces which closely resembles other Adobe applications

2005: another year, another PDF revision

In January 2005 Adobe started shipping Acrobat 7 (original code name: Vegas). Of course, it offered support for a new PDF flavor. PDF 1.6 offers the following improvements:

  • NChannel is an extension of the DeviceN mechanism for defining spot colors in a PDF document. It is backward compatible with DeviceN and enables more accurate handling of color blending by including additional dot gain and color mixing information.
  • Improved encryption algorithms
  • Some minor enhancements to annotations and tagging
  • OpenType fonts can be embedded directly into the PDF, they no longer have to be embedded as either TrueType or PostScript Type 1 fonts.
  • PDF 1.6 files can be used as a kind of ‘container’ file format by offering the possibility to embed files into a PDF.
  • The major new feature is the ability to embed 3D data. At first I thought this feature would only be interesting for architects or the CAD-CAM crowd. Then a colleague showed me a PDF he had created using ArtiosCAD, a design application for packaging. Within a PDF you can look at a box from all angles, check the graphic design and the positioning of images or bar codes. That’s when I understood that this technique can also be useful for graphic arts, specifically for people working in packaging or display.

PDF 1.7 – Adobe goes ISO

Probably the most ‘unexciting’ PDF-version to ever be released, PDF 1.7 contained improved support for commenting and security. Support for 3D also got improved, with the possibility to add comments to 3D-objects and more elaborate control over 3D animations. A PDF 1.7 file can include default printer settings such as paper selection, the number of copies, scaling,… You can download the full specs here.

Adobe Acrobat 8, code name Atlas and made available in October 2006, introduced one interesting new feature: instead of using PDF 1.7 as its default file format, it sticks to PDF 1.6. It has also become easier to save documents as an older PDF version. This is probably Adobe’s acknowledgment that most people don’t need the latest PDF release to get things done. For printing and prepress, PDF 1.3 or PDF 1.4 is just fine. Other new features include improved support for PDF/A, better-organized menus & toolbars and the ability to save forms in Adobe Reader 8. The fact that the preflight engine can also handle a number of corrections (called fix-ups) is another nice touch. Most people seem to think the enhanced performance, especially on Intel Macs is the biggest advantage. Some people don’t like the new user interface.

One interesting development with PDF 1.7 is the fact that it became an official ISO-standard (ISO 32000-1:2008) in January 2008. The official specs were released on 1 July. James King from Adobe posted some interesting background information about this on his blog.

12 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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