No, Thanks, I won’t be Buying Any PDF eBooks or Downloading any PDF Whitepapers

You can find almost any information on-line these days. Of course, it’s a struggle searching the Internet for it, and most of it’s not particularly readable – and then you never know if it will be there in another week… So there’s still a market for “packaged” information. You know, what we used to call “books.”

I just wish that all of you who want to package information in electronic form would find a better format than the Adobe Portable Document Format (the infamous “PDF” or Acrobat file). I’ve suffered so much, with so many PDF files, and I just refuse to actually pay for such an awful medium.

I suppose I should explain my antipathy to the PDF file. The fundamental issue is that it solves the wrong problem.

You see, when Adobe first developed the Portable Document Format, their immediate goal was to provide a common format that could be used to transmit publications to commercial printers. This made it possible for graphic designers using “desktop publishing” tools to have complete control over the design and appearance  of printed documents, regardless of which applications they used to create the documents, and regardless of what typesetting or imaging equipment the commercial printer used. This was a wonderful idea, and PDF is an excellent tool for this purpose.

Unfortunately, the people at Adobe seem to have lost sight of the primary purpose of distributing documents — to communicate information. They began a campaign to make PDF the standard for the electronic distribution of documents. In doing so, they focused their marketing on the graphic design community, telling their customers that using PDF would enable them to create documents once, distribute them in any medium, and be able to ensure that all readers would “see the same design.”

That is, indeed, the result. When a document is made available electronically as a PDF file, the user is forced to deal with a document that was designed for a different medium, and that is in a terrible format for use in any electronic display.

To begin with, virtually all documents are being created to a standard page size, in a “portrait” orientation. This doesn’t work very well when virtually all electronic displays are in “landscape” format (except those in handheld computers — but I’ll get to that a little bit later).

Furthermore, when a document is designed for printing on a letter-sized page, it takes a pretty high resolution display to be able to render the entire width of the document legibly. I realize that’s not quite as serious as it was when Adobe first introduced Acrobat Reader (when an 800 by 600 display was still “high resolution”), but it can illustrate the overall problem very clearly: try setting your screen resolution lower (for example, to 640 by 480) and then try to read a letter-sized document in Acrobat Reader. In order to make the characters large enough to be legible, you have to zoom to a point where you can’t see the entire text line at once. Therefore, you have to scroll horizontally in both directions for every line of text you read!

Contrast this to the effect of opening a document in a “structured” format, such as SGML or HTML, in an appropriate reader (such as your Web browser). The reader formats the document, on the fly. The document is formatted to the screen. Therefore, the line breaks fit the available space, and you can read the document continuously. The document is formatted with text sizes that fit the display. Therefore, the text is legible (if your eyesight is limited, you can tell the reader to use larger sizes, and everything will be enlarged proportionately).

In particular, if you open the same document in two different readers, on two devices with very different characteristics, each reader will format the document to the available display. For example, use the Kindle Reader software on your desktop computer, and open an e-Book. Then open the same e-Book using Kindle Reader on a smart phone. You’ll be looking at very different line breaks, and very different page numbers, but in each case the document will be clearly legible and easily readable.

Adobe has done us all a great disservice by persuading so many people to use PDF as their format of choice.

About The Author: Michael Meyers-Jouan has extensive experience in the software development and graphic design industries. He is also a prolific contributor to IT Toolbox. You can reach him through his profile here.

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