PDF: Innovation and Interoperability

PDF: Innovation and Interoperability

Greetings from Berlin! PDF Days Europe 2018 is in the books, and once again a fantastic event with many interesting talks and discussions. This was perhaps more special than most times, being the 25th anniversary of PDF and the 10th anniversary of PDF as an open international standard. An important topic of continual discussion throughout this time has been – and remains – the competing desires for interoperability and expanded capabilities. This year was no exception. PDF enjoys support from a vast ecosystem of different software vendors, software packages, and viewers. But support for various features remains at different stages in different PDF implementations.

There’s a core tension at play that the PDF community doesn’t often acknowledge:

Innovative experiences very often require the authority and boundaries of a closed system controlled by one implementer

yet

Truly groundbreaking experiences that create lasting value usually require open systems that are evolved by consensus

Let me elaborate:

Innovative experiences very often require both vision and concrete implementation. Following a vision and putting forth time and effort – for the creation of these experiences, but also for explaining to others the “what” and “why” of these experiences: this is typically a big gamble. For many individuals and companies, this is a gamble where losing may very well be a devastating blow. Success is far from assured, and comes usually only after great effort and as the result of skill, effort and the blessing of luck. And even if everything comes together, success is hardly assured. Those who don’t make it, after all, don’t get their stories in the news or their tales added to the ranks of legend. Quite the risk indeed! It’s only natural that these entrepreneurs would seek to have as much ability to influence all they can, to best ensure that their innovations can succeed in helping others. Closed systems allow greater control over the interactions of their discrete components. They enable innovators to focus on including and refining what is innovative, and to balance appropriately with other factors including time to implementation and time to market. Closed systems also allow the creation of boundary-moving experiences through creating an environment where the necessary experience components can be brought forward, lock-step, in synchronized advancement. When we think of examples like the Apple device ecosystem, or the Microsoft Office suite of products, or Amazon’s shared marketplace: we can intuitively see how the ability to control the experience and make decisions quickly and decisively, helped lead to better consumer experiences.

Open systems, on the other hand, tend to lead to more seismic shifts in how the world operates, and yet gain less attention. Open systems form the foundations that others build upon. These build upon standards and upon consensus, and provide frameworks that provide better outcomes more broadly. Multiple perspectives from different participants foster discussion, deliberation and collaborative solutions. The minimum bar for participation in open solutions is, necessarily, one that has to be both high enough to be worthwhile, yet not so high that it needlessly limits participation. What this leads to are broadly accepted standards and systems that encourage broad adoption. Broad adoption leads to shared capabilities and experiences. Shared experiences are the foundation of interoperability. However – in order to be shared, capabilities and experiences must be understandable and implementable across a variety of different products, different timeframes, and in different situations. Groundbreaking changes require the ability for a crowd to stand on common ground. When we think of groundbreaking experiences like the Internet, cellphone networks, or even the standardized power sockets that bring power to our devices, we see the strengths of standards and open systems. As well, we see how open systems bring advancement that can foster the subsequent development of closed systems.

But, we also see how innovations from closed systems can inspire standardization and open systems over time. Closed and open systems are complimentary while they also compete with each other – just as different closed systems compete, and just as different standards and open systems compete for adoption.

In the history of PDF, we’ve seen the PDF ecosystem gradually open over time – and we’re proud to have played our role in enabling applications and developers to add PDF capabilities to their software systems. PDF started in the 1990’s as a great risk taken on by Adobe Systems, and through the 1990’s and 2000’s gradually became a more open standard with a reference implementation and other complimentary implementations. Through this, the mission of interoperability in business documents was greatly advanced. We finally had a reliable way to share information across different users and computers, and to store and archive this information.

But now, the plethora of different incompatible PDF implementations puts the interoperability promise of PDF at risk. PDF is an open standard, freely implementable, and has thousands of different implementations. But PDF is also a framework of functionality – thousands of different pieces of functionality – and shows its earlier history as a documentation of the features of its reference implementation. Most practitioners understand that PDF as a complete standard is simply too vast to be completely and correctly implemented by any piece of software.

So what can we do?

I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion at PDF Days on PDF interoperability. My views I shared with the audience are that we, as a community, need to value interoperability more in order to see increased interoperability. This isn’t just the obvious answer of pressing the vendors of different PDF software to increase and improve their specification compliance. It’s also incumbent upon all of us, to write PDFs at the right level of technical sophistication for our audience. Just as speaking in a group of different people means we must use words that all can understand, so too must the PDFs that we generate use a set of functionality that is supported by all in our audience. When we are aiming for usability by the broadest possible audience, we should tailor our documents accordingly. Likewise, when we know our audience is more specialized and has more specialized capabilities, then we should take advantage of these.

In other words: know your audience and your situation. PDF facilitates interoperability and open exchange. And PDF facilitates pushing the boundaries of what can be expressed in more limited workflows.

Datalogics is proud to be an Adobe Ventures partner and to have worked to bring PDF capabilities to other developers for the past 20 years. Whether you are aiming for maximum portability in your PDFs, or aiming to take advantage of advanced PDF features, we’re looking forward to helping you with your PDF needs. Likewise, we’re looking forward to helping advance along communications through next decades to come by advancing open standards and interoperability for the entire PDF ecosystem.

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