The history of PDF

2008: Acrobat 9 sticks to PDF 1.7 ‘Adobe Extension Level 3’

Since the ISO-organisation now controls the PDF-standard, Adobe couldn’t introduce a new PDF 1.8 file format with the release of Acrobat 9, code named ‘Nova’ in June 2008. The PDF file format is pretty flexible however and it allows for the use of extensions – data that might have value to a certain application but that other software can simply ignore. Acrobat 9 PDF files are enhanced with such extensions, called Adobe Extension Level 3.  This extension can be used to embed geospatial data in a PDF file, something that is useful for maps. At the moment of writing, the Acrobat 9 SDK hadn’t been released yet so I don’t know which other features Extension Level 3 has.

It seems logical that Adobe will keep adding new features to PDF using such extensions, simply to add extra value to new releases of Acrobat. They may propose that some of them make it into new ISO-certified PDF releases. Of course, other companies can do the same or may request changes to Adobe’s proposals. The PDF standard will continue to evolve but since more companies & organizations can now get involved and committees by nature work much slower, there won’t be a new PDF version every 18 months.

I haven’t been using Acrobat 9 long yet but according to sources, such as this thread on the b4print forums, the Professional version is an interesting product for prepress professionals:

  • Acrobat 9 Professional offers good support for industry standards such as PDF/X-4 and GWG.
  • The application allows you to embed multiple files and data types into a Portfolio, which is similar to a ZIP file. It is unclear if this way of bundling data will become popular.
  • For a whole slew of common issues, there is no longer a need to revert to plug-ins as Acrobat 9 itself has the tools on board. A few examples:
    • The Touch Up Text Tool now supports word wrap (even though using it is still a hit-and-miss affair).
    • The Crop Tool lets you define the ArtBox, BleedBox, CropBox, or TrimBox.
    • The ‘Convert Colors’ tool is more powerful and faster. It also seems to have fewer issues with transparent objects.
    • Using the ‘Examine Document’ menu option you can delete all objects that are completely outside the page are (CropBox) or trim area (TrimBox).
  • ‘Output preview’ can simulate the effect of varying press conditions.
  • The application seems to run faster on Macs.
  • One small thing to keep in mind: ‘Overprint Preview’ is set for ‘Only for PDF/x files’ as default. Changing this to ‘Always’ is more reliable but slows down the application. Check out this blog for more background information.
  • Of course, there are also a number of features that target other markets besides print. Support for AES-256 encryption is an example of this.

2010: Acrobat X & PDF/VT

Acrobat X started shipping in late 2010.

  • The Acrobat and Reader user interface went through a major overhaul.
  • The Portfolio function is been greatly extended, allowing users to embed audio, video, and other rich media files in a PDF Portfolio.
  • Given all the security flaws that showed up in previous releases of Acrobat and Reader, Adobe implemented a Protected Mode for version 10. This ‘sandboxing’ technique should minimize the risk of opening infected PDF files by accessing them in an application that is confined to its own private execution environment.
  • Adobe Acrobat X and Reader X remain 32-bit applications but running them on 64-bit systems is supported.
  • The document comparison function has been enhanced, making it easier to import multiple versions of the same PDF and discover the differences.
  • One odd change is that Adobe now markets a version called Acrobat X Suite which includes Photoshop CS5.

As far as I know, Adobe did not create any Acrobat X-specific proprietary extensions for the PDF file format. In 2009 they did publish the specs of PDF 1.7 extension level 5 – some new PDF functions that were used in Acrobat 9.1.

In the fall of 2010, the PDF/VT standard was published as an official ISO standard: ISO 16612-2. PDF/VT is a special flavor of the PDF file format that is specifically geared towards variable data printing (VDP) in a variety of environments, from desktop printing to digital production presses. The V and T in PDF/VT actually stand for Variable and Transactional.

2012: Acrobat XI

In October 2012 Adobe started shipping Acrobat XI. This release focused on PDF editing and integrated cloud services. Redesigned Edit Text and Images tools let users update text directly in PDF, automatically wrap paragraph text, search and replace words in a PDF file, and crop, adjust, or replace images.  Files can be exported to Microsoft PowerPoint. The update also added improved support for tablets and better interoperability with Windows 7 and 8.

2017: PDF 2.0

The ISO-committee is finalizing work on the specifications of PDF 2.0 (ISO 32000-2). This standard is expected to be released in mid-2017. It will apparently be a minor refinement of the existing PDF 1.7 specifications. I have been told that PDF 2.0 will not incorporate any of the ideas from Mars. Mars was an Adobe project which focused on using XML as the internal data format within PDF documents. The main advantage of using XML as the internal format for PDF files would be that programmers would be able to use the incredible number of XML-tools and technologies that are available on the market to create or process PDF files. PDF 2.0 will however include improvements regarding transparency, spot color definitions, and output intents.

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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