Happy Birthday Adobe PDF!

Adobe Acrobat turned 25 this month. For those of us who remember the pre-PDF days and what it was like sending that floppy disk to a colleague only to find out later it was gibberish when opened, we also might believe that the PDF is "sheer elegance in its simplicity."

Elegant? Yes!

Dr. John Warnock recognized that looks do matter and effective communication happens when an author's intended design, formatting, and images all combine to present an idea as originally intended. In 1990, Dr. Warnock launched his idea, The Camelot Project, in which anyone could capture documents from any application, send those documents anywhere, and even print those documents from any machine without compromising the integrity of the content. "Take that Apple IIc Plus!" Sincerely, Tandy 1000.

In August 1990, Dr. Warnock published a six-page white paper to support his Camelot idea and thus work commenced on the radical idea of a "portable document format."

PDF has been around for 25 years -- but what does it stand for? Here's what a few people had to say on the streets of Salt Lake CIty.

Simple? No.

Take a moment and think about how we take for granted all the complexity that exists behind the three clicks "Save As PDF." The following excerpt from Dr. Warnock's paper explains the inception of the PDF (née "Interchange PostScript"):


By redefining “moveto” and “lineto” very different things can happen. For example, if these operators are defined as follows:

{exch writenumber writenumber (moveto) writestring}def
{exch writenumber writenumber (lineto) writestring}def

then when the “poly” procedure is executed a file is written that has the following contents:
1.0 0.0 moveto
0.809 0.588 lineto
0.309 0.951 lineto
-0.309 0.951 lineto
-0.809 0.588 lineto
-1.0 0.0 lineto
-0.809 -0.588 lineto
-0.309 -0.951 lineto
0.309 -0.951 lineto
0.809 -0.588 lineto
1.0 0.0 lineto

In this example the new redefined “moveto” and “lineto” definitions don’t build a path. Instead they write out the coordinates they have been given and then write out the names of their own operations. The resulting file that is written by these new definitions draws the same polygon as the original file but only uses the “moveto” and “lineto” operators. Here, the execution of the PostScript file has allowed a derivative file to be generated. In some sense this derivative file is simpler and uses fewer operators than the original PostScript file but has the same net effect. We will call this operation of processing one PostScript file into another form of PostScript file “rebinding."

---The Camelot Project, J. Warnock


It took fewer than 3 years for Dr. Warnock's vision and diligent work by a brilliant production team to solve the problem and release the first iteration of Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format.

Creating PDFs in the early days was nowhere near as simple as it is today. I recall diligently writing down in my notebook all the steps required. I don't recall every step but I do remember the IT request to install three pieces of hefty and pricey software on my machine: Acrobat Exchange, Acrobat Distiller, and Acrobat Reader. Yes, in the early days Acrobat Reader had a price tag associated with it.

Software that changed the world.

Software that changed the world.

In today's mobile responsive world, the PDF can cause frustration on an iPhone (I'm guilty). Yet I would argue that no other document technology has as much ubiquitous influence across markets and demographics as the beautiful PDF (more to come).


Mike Groth

Michael Groth is Director of Marketing at Cenveo Publisher Services, where he oversees all aspects of marketing strategy and implementation across digital, social, conference, advertising and PR channels. Mike has spent over 20 years in marketing for scholarly publishing, previously at Emerald, Ingenta, Publishers Communication Group, the New England Journal of Medicine and Wolters Kluwer. He has made the rounds at information industry events, organized conference sessions, presented at SSP, ALA, ER&L and Charleston, and blogged on topics ranging from market trends, library budgets and research impact, to emerging markets and online communities.. Twitter Handle: @mikegroth72