It’s one of those things that seems to have been around for as long as computers themselves, like Windows or Solitaire, yet most people don’t know that there wasn’t always a Portable Document Format, more commonly known as PDF, or that it took years for the world to be convinced of its usefulness. Now, most organisations wouldn’t dream of producing and distributing their documents in any format other than Adobe’s flagship container but how did it all start?
The ideology of the PDF was an honourable one; Adobe, and in particular their co-founder John Warnock, wanted to create a file format that could be opened on any hardware, independent of software. This format, originally codenamed ‘Camelot’, would change the way that electronic documentation was produced and although it isn’t entirely independent of software (over 99% of PDFs are opened using Adobe’s free PDF Reader), Warnock’s vision has been realised.
The first version of PDF was released in 1993 to little fanfare. The technological world was a very different place back then with a landscape that gave almost no space to the internet or electronic distribution. In fact, PDF version 1.0 had no support for hyperlinks and the files were too large to be emailed over snail-like internet connections. On top of this, computers of the age were not powerful enough to render PDFs efficiently, meaning that the world saw little value in the format.
Competing formats such as DjVu, Envoy and Farllon Replica were seen as superior formats for publishing documents and for a while it looked as though PDF would never get off the ground.
This started to change in 1996, with the release of version 1.3. The internet was playing a larger role in business, though it was yet to hit the consumer market in a big way, and Adobe made sure they were on the cutting edge. PDF 1.3 was the first to include interactivity (such as form filling) and web connectivity. It was a revolutionary step that would transform the way the world viewed PDFs.
As the leading document format in the internet age, Adobe added further features such as XML encoding, multimedia playback, embedded files, cross document linking and support for CAD drawings as soon as it was possible to do so. In 2006 it was announced that Microsoft Office would include PDF authoring as standard and in 2008, Adobe released PDF as an open format which, in a single stroke, meant that any software developer could create their own PDF authoring and editing software.
At the age of nearly 20, the PDF may seem like the old man of computing but you can be sure that it will remain the world’s number one document format for many years to come.