Like the native Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formats, PDF is not an open standard. Yet all of these formats are de facto standards in their own fields, be it word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and electronic documentation. Most everyone knows and uses them.
But PDF has an added bonus: You dont need the native application (Acrobat) to view the files, just Adobe Reader, which is free.
To some people, PDFs an odd bird. Its a privately owned standard. Adobe controls the file specifications destiny, whats in the standard, where its headed in the next version, and when the next version will hit public release. The folks in San Jose often listen closely to users when building capabilities into the document format, but they hold ultimate veto power.
Like traditional open standards, the PDF specification is publicly available. Anyone can lay hands on it, pretty much. People smart enough to read the spec can see whats under the PDF hood and write code that handles PDFs.
Yet PDF i—s not to be confused with an open standard, one propagated by industry committees that meet frequently—or infrequently as the case may be—to wrangle over what should be in it. And then wrangle over how to implement what theyve decided to put into it.
Some PDF observers express frustration with Adobe for controlling the spec. These PDF mavens argue that the formats development should be in the hands of the public, especially as government agencies increasingly legislate its use as the only form of electronic document they will accept. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has gone as far as to de-list Office files but retain PDF (along with OpenDocument) as an approved format in its new electronic document policy. Why? Im simplifying things here, but basically, because Adobe Reader is free.
No one can argue that Adobes controlling hand has sped PDFs evolution to the point where, today, a PDF file can be a sophisticated, rights-managed form, a densely complex print production file, or a mind-blowing multimedia experience that no paper publication can match.
Yet the PDF standards public availability means people are free to write their own PDF widgets, part of the reason PDF has spread like wildfire throughout government and enterprise.
For example, if I were working on the documentation for a big government agency—lets call it the Department of Homeland Bureaucracy—and Acrobat (or a competing PDF creator that my bureaucrats use) couldnt add a little proprietary something I needed present in all our PDFs. I could write a little custom application to do it. Lets call it Dons PDF Widget.
I could share Dons PDF Widget with my pals at other agencies in the same boat, and anyone could download it if I threw it up on the departments Web site. If it turned out to be useful to a lot of people, Id be invited to speak at conferences and would blow the crowd away with my genius.
Back in real life, Thom Parker, founder of WindJack Solutions, makes interesting PDF widgets. He actually does speak at PDF conferences and wows the crowd.
He welcomes Bill Gates to the PDF developer clique, now that Microsoft has announced its intentions to build “Save as PDF” as a feature into the next version of Office, code-named “12” and due out next year.
Microsoft isnt the only developer to write PDF support into its applications—Parker says hes seen a common plotline repeated more and more frequently of late: “If you go back and look at the developer threads at the Adobe forum and the PlanetPDF forum, over time, you can see people come in and say I want to do this, and its real detailed, in-depth kind of stuff with the PDF spec,” says Parker.