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What is the future of PDF on its 30th anniversary? 

Published on 14 September 2023
Updated on 19 March 2024

We use PDF (Portable Document Format) so much in everyday activities that we often take it for granted. But PDFs haven’t always been around. In 1993, Adobe (formerly Adobe Systems Incorporated) created the PDF file format so that documents could be shared across different digital platforms.  

PDF also became a critical bridge between paper-based and digital communication. By mimicking printed text, PDF facilitated a smooth transition from the analogue to the digital exchange of information. It has served as a discrete public good of high relevance for our digital society. 

As PDF turns 30, we should review its evolution and discuss its future uses. The critical question is whether PDF’s primary role of helping transition from print to digital communication is still relevant today, as younger generations are more accustomed to digital media and less exposed to books and printed materials. This and other questions are addressed in this text.

How has PDF facilitated the interplay between print and digital documents?

The PDF was developed to ensure that documents appear identical regardless of where they are viewed or printed. The innovative idea effectively abstracted the concept of a physical/printed document, liberating it from the limitations of print or proprietary formats and platforms.

The effects have been huge. Businesses, schools, and people were suddenly able to share documents across different platforms without having to worry about inconsistent formatting. Spreading Adobe Reader for free helped PDF become the standard way to share documents around the world.

Another watershed moment came when Adobe released PDF as an open standard to the public. The company officially handed over the development of the PDF standard, now known as ISO 32000-1:2008, to the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). Adobe’s dedication to maintaining PDF’s credibility and widespread compatibility as a standard for document exchange was on full display with this move.

One of the best examples of the power of agile and gradual innovation is these pivotal moments and the overall evolution of PDF, as shown in the timeline below. While the PDF has evolved to keep up with technological advances, the core concept of preserving the appearance of a document online and in print has remained the same.

Timeline of Evolution of PDF format.
Prepared by Diplo’s Creative Lab

What has changed in document management over 30 years?

An excellent context for discussion on the future of PDF can be anchored in the summary of evolution of how we deal with documents, as outlined by Duff Johnson’s comparative survey of handling documents in 1993 and 2023.

WP DataTables

Source: 30 years of change, 30 years of PDF by Duff Johnson

What are the main challenges in the use of PDF?

Accessibility is a major challenge for PDF, as the format influences the lives of millions of people around the world through information distribution. Books and educational materials are distributed in PDF format. Handbooks and documentation are frequently distributed online as PDFs. Due to our heavy reliance on PDF, the format must be readily accessible on a wide variety of digital devices.

This is not always the case, particularly on mobile phones. Reading PDF files on mobile phones can be a frustrating experience because you have to zoom and pan across pages to get to the information you need. Despite the fact that PDF’s liquid mode has improved reading on mobile devices, it is still primarily a print-first document format. 

The use of PDF by people with disabilities is the ultimate litmus test for its accessibility. Adobe has provided advanced PDF tools to assist them in gaining access to digital materials.

However, they have limited impact because the development of these accessibility features necessitates the use of Acrobat Pro, which many individuals (teachers, graphic artists) and organisations around the world cannot afford. As a result, technical possibilities are unlikely to become a usable reality.

As content creators and publishers become more aware of the importance of accessibility priorities, (see The European Accessibility Act: Everything You Need To Know) options for creating accessible content will become decisive in decisions about next-generation software formats.

How is PDF used in diplomacy?

The PDF format is widely used in diplomatic communication. PDF is based on a long tradition of format that gives diplomatic documents gravitas. Clay, not papyrus, was used to record diplomatic exchanges in Ancient Egypt, as evidenced by the oldest diplomatic archive discovered in Tal-Amarna. Diplomatic correspondence and treaties were written on parchments of the highest quality during the Middle Ages. In modern era, even if they are written on paper, treaties are bound in leather covers.

PDF will likely continue to be utilised online for official documents including note verbales, diplomatic letters, and treaties. To make less official diplomatic documents, such as declarations, policy briefs, and reports, more accessible to the general public, other formats should be utilised.

In this context, Diplo has been preparing a variety of diplomatic and policy documents in HTML for easier mobile and interlinking accessibility. They are accessible in two repositories: Diplo’s diplomatic resources, DW’s digital policy resources.

What is the future of PDF?

As we move away from traditional publishing methods, one might wonder if PDF will become obsolete. For example, some governments, such the UK, promote the policy of publishing documents in HTML instead of PDF.

In addition to accessibility, the main issue surrounding the future of PDF will be the conceptual trade-off between document flexibility and preservation. In terms of preparing, updating, and managing documents, PDF is not as adaptable as HTML and other content-management systems. However, it is far superior in terms of preservation. If you try to find digital documents from decades ago, you are much more likely to find them in PDF format rather than HTML format. Web documents typically disappear or change as a result of frequent technical and design changes in web technology,, as you can review from the Wayback Machine

As new technology comes out quickly, PDF should remind us to look beyond the latest tech and think about our responsibility to pass on our knowledge to future generations, just as we learned from those who came before us. Most of what we know will be stored in digital form.

For the time being, it is safe to assume that PDF will continue to be relevant in all areas where document preservation is critical. PDF will also be required whenever the mode of communication is as important as the content (after all, the medium is the message). It will continue to be an important component of legal communication, invoicing, and medical records, to name a few. In diplomacy, PDF will continue being used for official communication such as diplomatic letters and formal treaties. 

As we celebrate PDF’s 30th birthday, we should thank Adobe and the PDF community for providing this unique public good that has quietly facilitated our digital reality for decades.

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