Raise your hand who never used a PDF? Today it is almost a synonym for “document”. Whoever uses the internet and the electronic mail, sooner or later is bound to step into PDF documents. Using this format is so widely spread that it seems it has ever existed. But no!

A short story of pdf

PDF, an acronym for Portable Document Format, was officially born on the 15th of June, 1993. The revolution that will make it an indispensable tool, starts from the skills and intuition of John E. Warnack, an engineer. As a child, he hated maths, but later on he gets fond of them thanks to a Utah University teacher. After a period of apprenticeship with IBM as a programmer, he starts working with Xerox, a leader manufacturer of printers and photocopiers. Here, together with Chuck Geschke, he develops Interpress, an innovative protocol that enables computers and printers to communicate. The two engineers would launch it on the market, but Xerox wants to make it an exclusive standard for its products. Strongly believing in their idea and wishing to make it known worldwide, in 1982 they both quit Xerox and found Adobe Systems. Their first move is the invention of PostScript, a language that in a short time would enable reproducing artwork and contents at low costs. Steve Jobs is its first user by installing it in Apple LaserWriters. However, this language requires very powerful, and consequently expensive, machines and printers and does not enjoy widespread success. In 1991 Warnock initiates the “Camelot Project” with a challenging target in mind: the possibility to display materials created with different applications and operating systems. In a few years, PDF is made available. It comes as a multi-platform format designed to look the same in every device. It is free of charge and open-source, can be displayed using Acrobat Reader and no information gets lost! In a short time, it is preferred to all other document publishing formats.

a revolution in the graphic field

A deeper insight in graphics, and in publishing graphics in particular, reveals that PDF came as a revolution also in this field. How did you work before the advent of PDF? All was more complicated …

Sending a graphic product ready for printing (either a book, a leaflet, a newspaper or whatever else graphic job) required delivering the original document obtained from a dedicated layout and graphic software program (at the time: Quark Xpress, Freehand, or Pagemaker, for example) together with all its components such as drawings, photographs, and fonts.  The printer should open it using the same software program. The least mistake or forgetfulness by the materials package originator was enough to display and print a wrong content. Not to mention that these materials weighed a lot, digitally speaking, and that, before the advent of CD and DVD, you had to make use of  Zip and Jaz cartridges and drivers. These devices easily got worn out and might cause writing and reading troubles.

The PostScript language was an intermediate step. It enabled exporting the job with all of its elements inside, but the result could only be viewed at the time of printing, when the machine processed it. No previous checks could be made. Also, PostScript development experienced a series difficulties in terms of compatibility, missing of even correct artwork and fonts, and so on.

In the meantime, PDF is made ready. However, before being suitable for use in the graphics field, it has to be further developed to manage colour spaces in the four-colour mode, half-tones, and overprinting (PDF 1.2), to improve font and transparency management, levels, etc. Nonetheless, in the first decade of the years 2000, PDF is increasingly successful until becoming irreplaceable.  Various plug-ins are developed for Acrobat to support graphics firms, run quality checks and identify mistakes. The revolution is accomplished.

Concurrently, PDF not only spreads in the world of work, but also at popular level following the decision to release Adobe PDF Reader free of charge (1998) and its ingress in the web. Many household printers can manage it and, as compression options provide ever smaller files, it becomes a tool to exchange documents via e-mail.

The lastest development

In the following years, everything rapidly turns different, graphics and layout software changes (with Adobe becoming the undisputed leader) and at the same time PDF evolves. Using paper drafts for correction purposes becomes obsolete and the exchanges between authors, editors and layout artists take place through PDF. Editors can even correct drafts directly in PDF using the comment option that accepts digital writing. Document exchange systems through online services and file sharing platforms allow overcoming e-mail size limits. Who knows what the future holds for us?

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