After Flash, why PDF must die !

By Serge Huber posted 04-25-2012 09:33


Ok now that I have your attention, I'll quickly say that of course I believe that PDF is a great technology that has served its purpose for a long time, but I believe we should progressively stop using it in some use cases since the world has actually changed to slowly make it less relevant.

PDF, the Portable Document Format, was initially created by Adobe to address a difficult problem at the time: how to generate a document that would always look the same, no matter the platform it was viewed on, and that would print out in the same way on various printers connected to different hardware and operating systems. It used at its core the Postscript technology it had pioneered and combined it with font embedding, compression and various other features to achieve the at-the-time impressive goal.
It is a real testament to the engineers working on PDF at the time that this was indeed achieved, and worked well work a long time, making the document format widely accepted throughout all industries. Today a PDF file is a guarantee of delivery of high quality print formatted content, visible on an amazing range of target platforms, ranging from desktop computers to mobile devices such as smartphones.
The PDF file format even included optional DRM technologies and forms that made it possible for organizations that needed to provide digital fill-out forms and make it easy to give them to users to fill out and print out (saving the results proved to be less ubiquitous though).
But if it was this great, why am I saying it should join Flash in the realm of technologies we should get rid of ? Well actually for many of the same reasons that Flash was targeted by Apple initially: mobile devices and HTML5. Apple made a huge gamble when they released mobile devices that didn't include a Flash player. From my point of view, it was initially a pure engineering decision, that exploded into a real open conflict when it got into Steve Jobs' hands. The engineers working on the iPhone and the iPad looked at Flash from a CPU usage consumption point of view, and quickly noticed that it was using up a lot of power because of the intrinsic compositing and post processing done inside the player to make things look good. As Adobe was focusing on making Flash available on many platforms, including some with no graphic processor units (GPUs), it build a high-quality but CPU-intensive renderer. It then tried to use the GPUs on the Windows platform because it was trying to address the problem of the netbook platforms that were using Intel Atom CPUs and that were not sufficient to playback high resolution video feeds now available on YouTube.
At the same time Adobe was working with Apple to improve the implementation on the Mac  OS X platform but I'm guessing that these efforts were not very high priority because Adobe was probably most interested in the Windows platform. Also, I'm also guessing that Adobe was not told about the iPhone project until it was about to be released, because we all know Apple likes to keep secrets to make big announcements.
When Google tried to use Flash as a way to attract customers to their own mobile platform, the result was actually quite disappointing, Flash on Android was so slow and battery hungry that Adobe announcd it would not include it in the next major release of Android anymore. So what are people replacing Flash with ? They are replacing it with HTML5.
HTML5 is a very powerful new version of possibly the most used standard in the world. It can already do today almost everything that the Flash player can do, at least the most used functions, and has native hardware accelerated implementations on all major platform, this time including mobile devices. Again doing this in a standard and open way probably helped get more companies involved, and it was quite amazing to see how fast the new extensions were being implemented. Even Microsoft has seen the light and is rapidly implementing the standard in its own browser, and although I remain sceptical about the quality of their implementation (I have been burned in the past), the first new versions are promising. 
Flash became very popular on the web because it helped solve two problems : the video codec nightmare and multi-platform gaming. Before the inclusion of video in the Flash player, there were ways to embed videos on an HTML page, but these actually embedded a native player such as Windows Media Player or Real Media Player, and these were not available on every operating system. Inside the custom players often multiple video codecs were used, and if a video used a codec that was not available on some platforms (usually because it hadn’t been installed), the video would simply not play. Flash helped this problem by offering a highly available player on all major desktop operating systems making it possible for services such as YouTube to develop. HTML5 does bring us a new video tag, but the problem of the codec is still a big issue, as some browser implementations are proponents of the Google VP8 codec engine, while others prefer H.264. Hopefully this will not be an issue for end-users, but that remains to be seen. On the gaming side, this is one area where Flash is still a solid solution, and until there are good tools to replace Flash authoring tools with HTML5, I think that this will primarily be the place where Flash will remain strong.
Back to PDF, it is easy to see that the technical demands of this file format are much less demanding than the Flash player technology. Embedding fonts is also now possible in CSS 3.
One area where PDF file are actually a nuisance is on smaller screen mobile devices. A lot of us, I believe, would be interested in reading content coming from magazines or books on their mobile devices, be they an iPhone, and iPad, a Kindle or any other you prefer. On these devices a PDF is really a bad thing to use, since you end up seeing only a part of the document at a time, and end up scrolling and zooming a lot just to read the content. Even the iPad’s larger screen is not really big enough to match the size of a regular piece of paper or a real magazine page, so everything ends up being too small to read (unless you pan and zoom). The Kindle e-reader is a wonderful screen for reading, but opening a PDF, although technically possible, is a pain because the screen is too small and therefore you either end up with an unreadable page, or have to pan and zoom with a device that doesn’t necessarily have touch (here I’m considering only the low end non-touch version of the Kindle, as I believe that we need to look at how to scale content down to the cheapest available devices). So what we can see here is that the printed-page metaphor on which PDF is based really doesn’t work well on the mobile devices, and for this reason I believe we need something better.
There are already quite a few e-book standards available that fit the bill better, but some of them are limited and will not fit the more advanced needs of magazine editors for example. But this is changing rapidly and I have good hope that standards such as EPUB3 will grow more and more powerful. At the same time it is also possible to use HTML5 embedded inside native application and build some scalable rendering, especially using CSS3’s media queries, that make it possible to change the styling based on screen sizes or orientation (portrait, landscape).
I think that in the future PDF will probably survive for a long time as a solution for scanning and printing, although my ecological self would prefer we limit printing to a minimum, and that other formats should be preferred to target consumption on mobile devices. It seems that book editors are understanding this now because I see that less and less electronic books are being delivered only in PDF format but usually also make them available in various e-book formats. The scanning use case is a bit different, but here also PDF is a bit of an overkill as usually it is not needed to have a complex format as PDF to store an image, but it is used here mostly for lack of a better alternative. The industry that still is looking for a good cross platform standards is the magazine industry, and this must happen soon because that industry is actually losing a lot of traction and some already say it is a business of the past.
Both Flash and PDF were born out of needs to deliver better cross-platform experiences, but since their birth the open web standards have started replacing every feature unique to the former, making them slowly more irrelevant. This is a natural and good thing, and I hope we will see more delivery in the future of scalable open content standards.

#CSS #Scanning #ScanningandCapture #mobile #Flash #HTML5 #e-readers #PDF


08-23-2012 06:12

Hi guys!
I'm very interested on this topic and the proof is in the pudding cause I've founded a company to "kill" PDF. Its name is
We think that the future of docs is in the cloud and that way we have designed a new doc format specially to be stored in the cloud so you can do thinks like:
- Sharing
- Tracking (at a page level)
- Defining DYNAMIC behavior for the same doc based on recipients or attention payed to the doc
- Controlling properties of the doc AFTER sending the doc to the final recipient.
All these features above can't be done dinamically with PDF.
Check it out and ask me for a PRO account if are really interested.

05-05-2012 20:16

I would agree to most statements made in this blog. And perhaps I missed it, but PDF has become an excellent format for paper records that were converted to PDF for long term retention. I happen to believe NARA made a good decision to declare PDF/A as its electronic record format of choice. It is not perfect, but PDF/A is the best and most convenient method in which to store electronic records - especially those born in the paper world, but now gone digital.

05-02-2012 12:53

This is a great topic. PDF is not going anywhere soon, but I think that it will become the software version of Microfiche. The format is great for archival information and for viewing documents that otherwise would be on paper. But, PDF fails when trying to use it on small screen devices and downloads from the cloud. You cannot expect the PDF producer to tag PDF for reflow on smaller devices, and reduce the size of PDF for faster downloads from the cloud. Most PDF producers just do not know enough about PDF and Adobe Acrobat to make their PDF efficient for today's uses. I still get 5M 3 page PDFs from customers, or PDFs that are untagged for reflowing on mobile devices. As we consume more information on our mobiles devices the use of PDF will continue to decline. The thing that made PDF such a great tool (being the exact copy of a paper document) also confines it uses in today’s ever increasing mobile world.
PDF will be(is) the standard for archiving documents, and being the electronic version of the paper documents. It’s just like microfiche is for old newspapers at the library. In the future that’s all PDF will be used for. You will have to view them on desktop computers and laptops which uses are going to continue to decline in the future. New and interesting future content is going to be created for more mobile and smaller screen devices that download fast. Another format will fill this void while PDF will become an afterthought for this content. And PDF readers will one day be like Microfiche Readers in the library.

05-01-2012 11:13

Lest you are too quick to kill and bury PDF, keep in mind that PDF, with all its complexities, is one of the most used formats for storage of documents that organizations need to rely upon. Authenticity of the "document", in the manner in which it was rendered to the human user/viewer, is often a critical element of lawsuits and needs to be considered before we move to other formats. While PDF, alone, is not sufficient to demonstrate the reliability of an electronic document, it is ONE piece of a very complicated puzzle of the ESI issue.

05-01-2012 11:11

I've never cared for the PDF format, which, in my eyes, began as a solution to a problem, but evolved into a parasitic piece of technology. Sure, PDF is universal--as long as you have Adobe's products! Word documents have had the exact same functionality since 1997. To me, a company choosing to remain standardized on PDFs is indicative of a culture of stagnation, not innovation.

05-01-2012 10:47

While it's a clever idea to compare Flash to PDF, it's a false premise. While Flash is a proprietary, closed, licensed technology, PDF has numerous ISO standards: PDF/X, PDF/A, PDF/E, PDF/VT, PDF/UA, all of which are key technical platforms in various industries.
Keep in mind, UX may and does vary. PDFs work fine on my Android devices with Adobe Reader. Panning and zooming will always be an option for the viewing experience on any device. For example, websites can be dumbed down to a baby mobile version, but some content requires more space and even Adaptive and Responsive layouts can't handle all cases. Some of us are not so dumb as to ignore our periphery, and not all content has to be dumbed down to the most minimal screen shot. And, if it doesn't fit on a mobile device...perhaps large screens and printed materials do serve a role going forward.
Here's a fun use case: tell a poet that all text must reflow beyond their control. ;-)
Standards are indeed important, and HTML5, CSS3, and EPUB are all significant standards. But EPUB is still in a primitive state, compared to what we can do on the web and with PDF, and it will take some time for EPUB3 to fully develop and for devices to accommodate it. There is plenty of room for PDF ISO platforms, if Adobe, Apple, and Amazon don't conspire to kill it.
BTW, if you are looking forward to a "future of scalable open content standards," you might want to ditch your iPhone, iPad, and Kindle, which are all the worst examples of proprietary technology.

05-01-2012 10:10

Hello Inge,
Thanks for reading.
What you describe is of course true, and this is why open standards are so important for long term digital storage. Can we still open MS Word 1 files ? Probably not. Are there some archived ones in backups all over the world : absolutely !
The main point of this post was not to say that the standard must disappear, but that it should not be used in its current form for digital publishing on mobile devices. Too often people say : just create a PDF, that'll do. This is not true, opening a PDF on almost any mobile device (yes, even 10" ones !) is a pain, you constantly have to pan and zoom. That was the main point I was making :)
Best regards,
Serge Huber.

05-01-2012 10:06

Hello Olaf,
Thanks for reading and for your comments.
I do agree that "sealed documents" are a strong suit of PDF. After all I do agree that the "Portable Document Format" needs to evolve, but I have some strong concerns as to using the existing implementations as a basis.
What concerns me is that if you are describing tagged PDF with a reflow technology such as something similar to CSS, then why not use HTML 5 + CSS or something out of XSLF ?
I've already experimented quite a bit with building dynamic magazine layouts in HTML 5 + CSS 3. These can be "sealed" by signing archives, but of course there a lack of standard there, I do agree with that. What can be achieved is much more powerful than PDF layouts, which only need to be static in some use cases, such as print or limited power devices such as basic e-readers.
Again please don't get me wrong, under the provocative title meant to spark the debate and hopefully open minds to new options for presenting and distributing digital content, I still believe PDF has a long life in front of it :)
Best regards,
Serge Huber.

05-01-2012 09:59

Hello Brian,
If it was just a writing problem I probably wouldn't have argued against the PDF technology, but rather focused on the authoring.
I still think that it is not the best tool for a "paper-less" shift in paradigm that mobile devices is clearly helping to trigger. Now can it evolve to become the solution as proposed by some commentators in the post ? Sure why not, but it will require a major rethinking of the standard, and I'm afraid it might loose it's original purpose, or strech to wide that it will be really difficult to implement (which actually is already true !).
Unfortunately I don't have a perfect solution, but it seems that mobile applications, especially on tablets are paving the way to more acceptable formats, although they are for the moment very limited in their portability or openness. This is a problem that still needs to be solved.
Best regards,
Serge Huber.

05-01-2012 09:55

Hi John,
I wish I owned only two mobile devices, it would make my life a lot easier :) I've lost count of how many I have now, either for work or private purposes.
I agree it is a strange subject for an AIIM blog post, but I really believe we are seeing a shift in perception of PDF, as is clearly illustrated by the excellent feedback I'm getting to this post. I still don't like it on my mobile devices though, but maybe some day in a future revision ?
Best regards,
Serge Huber.

05-01-2012 05:57

Millions, maybe billions of documents are created in PDF for long-time storage. One must be able to read these for, well, forever. Converting all these documents to a new format is not feasible. So new document-reading tools must be able to at least read and display PDF files - even if we stopped producing new PDF documents.
New technologies may be better than PDF, and new requirements may (or will) give new formats. But if we are serious about preserving the contents, for each new format we will have one MORE format to take into account. Not for the duration of the technology, but forever. That is a long time.

05-01-2012 05:55

Hi Serge,
I believe you are having only a tiny portion of what PDF actually is - conceptually and as a matter of fact - in your mind. While PDF has been and still is strong in the dissemination of content that in the past tended to be printed on paper and now more and more often is shared electronically, there are numerous other uses where I have difficulty seeing what kind of technology is going to take its place any time soon.
If you think about the PDF acronym, you'll realize the middle portion of it refers to documents. And this clearly is to be understood as in 'final form document'. And I believe this aspect is what no other technology is stepping up for yet. PDF is final compared to a Word document or Excel spread sheet. It is of final form because someone decided 'this is what it shall look like' - whether a birthday invitation card was put together by a person privately at home, whether a contract for a life insurance package is to be signed, or whether any other kind of document became final and was intended to have a defined appearance.
This topic might be revisited once something comes up, that preserves the finality of a document in a comparable way to what PDF does, but does a better job than PDF on certain devices or under certain circumstances or for certain uses or simply is more efficient.
At the Technical Conference 2012 of the PDF Associationm in Basel earlier this year, this was actually discussed quite extensively: for example, to combine PDF and let's say EPUB (still quite in its early infancy - promising format/technology, but extremely poor execution in 99% of the EPUB pieces out there) and offer a hybrid experience (if you have the screen real estate, do the usual PDF thing, if not, use a smart and well designed reflow, not the poor implementation we are currently faced with). Surprising for some, accessible PDF (or well tagged PDF, as some might call it) is an extreemly good starting point for this, as the payload has to be present in the PDF only once. So EPUB isn't even needed, just some rule set (CSS?) to define how the static content of a PDF is rendered dynamically. Interestingly, a suitable ISO standard (ISO 14289-1, also called PDF/UA) is just about to be ratified (in 2 months) and published a two or three months thereafter. It could serve as a basis for such an approach, and adding reflow would only be a minor technical challenge.
Stay tuned, I bet something is going to happen real soon in this field...
Olaf Drümmer
callas software, axaio software
PDF Association –
German expert for the PDF working groups in ISO TC 130 and ISO TC 171

05-01-2012 05:29

Being the owner of two mobile devices used for business, I am very much in favour of breaking the habit of using PDF to publish anything for any target, in its present form anyway.
However, I was amused to come across the following web site which seems to belie the blog headline “... PDF must die”. A lot of very influential people some of them AIIM members; seem to think that for the foreseeable future, PDF will be used for business, if not for “social biz”.

05-01-2012 05:28

Being the owner of two mobile devices used for business, I am very much in favour of breaking the habit of using PDF to publish anything for any target, in its present form anyway.
However, I was amused to come across the following web site which seems to belie the blog headline “... PDF must die”. A lot of very influential people some of them AIIM members; seem to think that for the foreseeable future, PDF will be used for business, if not for “social biz”.

05-01-2012 05:11

To make content for mobile we must change the way we write. Writing for mobile is a new skill, just making the content present differently by changing technology wont make it suitable for mobile. Role on the end of PDFs but please lets not just replace it with another technology lets write better for mobile