Is PDF a good thing?

My translation of Dogen’s “Bendowa” uses lots of footnotes, so I put it up in MS Word .doc format, but that’s not very friendly. So I thought I’d put it up in PDF. Adobe has a 30-day free trial for Acrobat Professional so I wouldn’t have to fork out the $300 price of the product just for my little experiment.

But the download is 200MB! That might be the largest thing I’ve ever downloaded in my life. Took at least 20 minutes.

Acrobat did a good job of PDF’ing my document. But it took a good 10 minutes to do a little 40-page document. This seems way too slow if Adobe hopes for PDF to become a widely-used distribution format. And although Adobe made my footnote numbers “hot” so they jumped to the footnote text, why can’t do they do the same for index entries? And the Japanese text, although it came through OK, is all sort of grayed-out looking; why is that? (The PDF is here.)

I’ve heard that Adobe wants to push PDF as a means for archiving entire web sites, and in fact the verison I downloaded apparently can do this, although I didn’t give it a try. But that seems like a weird attempt at positioning the product. In terms of people today trying to display a web site, any computer that can run Acrobat can run a competent web browser, so there’s no reason to Acrobatize web sites for people today; the idea must be to do it for people in the future. Aside from the fact that that seems like a very narrow niche to be aiming at (“Preserve your web pages for the ages with Acrobat!”), my guess is that fifty years from now someone will have at least as good a chance of viewing a website saved as its original HTML/CSS/JS files as they would trying to view a version frozen five decades ago in time by Adobe Acrobat 2004 version.

I think Adobe is in complete, if understandable, denial about the fact that the weird FORTH-like language called Postscript invented 30 years ago by John Warnock that ran on a 10cps teletype, which was not a very good language to start with, even for laser printing applications, is not and cannot and will not ever be, no matter how gussied up or repositioned into a workflow tool or secure document environment or collaboration system or forms product or whatever else, the lingua franca of computer-readable information in the 21st Century. We already have one, and it’s called HTML and related W3C standards.

Come to think of it, it also seems weird that a company whose mission in life is bridging the worlds of printed documents and computing would not have figured out that we need better ways for computers to help us read on-screen documents. Here’s a quote from a 1994 Warnock interview:

Q. Will people in fact learn to read onscreen the way that they read books today? A. I think that the more personal computer displays become like lightweight books, the more people are going to feel comfortable reading from them. A PC that you can open up and physically handle easily, that has the right kind of battery and display, will give the same visual impression as a page.

The only thing he can think of to make the on-line reading experience more rewarding is the form factor. That’s pretty limited.

One Response to “Is PDF a good thing?”

  1. Bo Laurent Says:

    Yes, but there is an important difference between HTML (let\’s make it XHTML, okay?) and PDF. XHTML is intended to render the same text on any device, but the appearance may vary wildly. PDF is intended to render a document so it looks the same no matter where rendered.


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