30 years of PDF: The file format that changed the world

3D rendering of Adobe Acrobat logo
(Image credit: Unsplash / Sunny Haccan)

Here we are, boldly proclaiming that the PDF format celebrates its 30th birthday in 2023, but that’s not entirely accurate. True, it was first introduced by Adobe Systems in January 1993 at the Windows and OS|2 Conference, and formally launched later, on the 15th of June. But the seeds of that format were sown many years previously. 

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Dr Warnock and the Quest for Compatibility 

The concept of PDF - Portable Document Format - actually began with the Camelot Project in 1990. And Camelot itself would be nothing without the very backbone of the idea, PostScript, which started all the way back in 1985, and kickstarted the desktop publishing software revolution.

Back in those days, cross-platform compatibility was a nightmare, which led Dr John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe, to initiate that project. Its goal was simple in its concept but ambitious in its execution: create a format that would enable anyone to send any document electronically to anyone else, and that person would be able to read and even print it with its formatting perfectly preserved.

These documents should be viewable on any display and should be printable on any modern printers. If this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change

Dr John Warnock

Now to us jaded computer users nearly at the end of the first quarter of the 21st Century, this may sound like nothing to be excited about, but back in the 80s and 90s, which was the personal computer’s infancy, this was a big deal.

You see, back then, you couldn’t be sure which software someone would be using. You wouldn’t even know which fonts were installed on their machine. If you used one that wasn’t in that other computer’s repertoire, it could at best mess up your document’s formatting. To make matters worse, there was the Mac/Windows divide which was often viewed as a deal-breaker. Many remained convinced a file created on one type of computer could not be opened on another.

Don’t think just putting stuff online would be the solution: this was a time when you couldn’t guarantee how a webpage would be experienced from one machine to another, or even one browser version to the next. Everything was new, everything was constantly evolving, and you just had to accept your meticulously crafted layout may only look meticulous on your own particular computer.

It was the worst possible Wild West.

A Call for Unity: The Acrobats of Camelot 

Camelot, published on the 31st of August 1990, was a white paper describing Dr Warnock’s vision - a call to arms, if you will. In it, he stated:

“What industries badly need is a universal way to communicate documents across a wide variety of machine configurations, operating systems and communication networks. These documents should be viewable on any display and should be printable on any modern printers. If this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change.”

In that letter, PostScript and Display PostScript technologies are mentioned as an actual solution to this problem, aside from the fact that they require powerful processors to work, something that was out of the reach of most computer users at the time.

Remember that back in those days we were using Windows 3.0 and System 6 (for Macs). By today’s standards, this was beyond archaic.

Adobe worked for years on this project, and on the 15th of June 1993, at the Equitable Centre in New York, they released its primo PDF editor, Acrobat 1.0. The first product suite included Acrobat Reader, Acrobat Exchange, and Adobe Distiller, for viewing PDFs, creating and viewing PDFs, and converting PostScript files to PDFs respectively. 

The Early Days: Dreamers vs Bean Counters 

In the early days, PDF was mainly popular in desktop publishing workflows. Mainstream adoption was slow, not helped by the fact that Adobe Acrobat was not freely available. When the internet started making its way around the world, PDFs were not universally embraced as was hoped. There were many issues which hampered the format back then. One of these was its lack of support for hyperlinks. Here was a wondrous new system that allowed you to click on anything to get to anywhere, and PDFs were conspicuously out of the loop.

Format and layout integrity was also viewed as a luxury for casual users when you had to send files over dialup modems, where a small text file would be sent in seconds, but a PDF could clog up the phone line for far too long. And despite Camelot’s lofty ambitions, complex files could prove too challenging for many computers of the day.

In order to help get some market penetration, it was decided to do something that went against the grain at Adobe: give something away. When Adobe Reader 1.0 came out, the software that merely allowed you to read PDFs, you had to pay $50 to get your hands on it. It’s little surprise only the desktop publishing pros would’ve forked out for this software.

If Adobe wanted everyone to be able to view PDFs, it had to change its ways, and when 2.0 was released in 1994, anyone could get a copy for free.

Many people inside the company were strongly against that decision at the time. After all, it cost them a lot of money to produce and maintain, and they were now giving it away for nothing. 

But Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke trusted his instinct regarding what is now one of the best free PDF editors around. As he said himself, “you can’t analyze a market that has never existed.” He was lucky that his company’s other products, like Photoshop, were cash cows, and as long as the dollars kept flowing, this particular money pit was allowed the time to find its feet. 

Proprietary vs Open: From Obscurity to Ubiquity 

And find its feet it did. Giving away the Reader definitely gave the format a boost and it slowly started expanding its reach. It only took a few years for it to become the de facto standard for printable documents.

In 2005, a variant of PDF, known as PDF/A, was designed for use in the archiving and long-term preservation of electronic documents. That format differs from PDF as it purposefully lacks features that would hinder this goal, such as font linking and encryption software. PDF/A became a de jure standard that same year (meaning it’s a standard defined by law).

During all this time, PDF remained a proprietary standard, fully owned and controlled by Adobe. However this changed in 2008, when it was released from its home, and became an open standard. It has since been under the care of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). Obviously, Adobe still has a strong interest in the future of the format, but it has now just one vote, the same as anyone else on the Committee.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however. Adobe has always encouraged other companies to build software that created PDFs. Since its introduction in 1993, the PDF Reference (a document that showed anyone how to do this) has evolved, but some parts were ambiguous at first, which inevitably led to a slew of badly created PDFs. Nowadays this document is mature and detailed, but with so many PDFs out there in the wild, the problem remains. Lack of adherence to the official guidelines is just one reason why free PDF editors may not be right for an organization, and what separates today’s free PDF editors vs. paid-for PDF editors

In their effort to make sure all documents could be opened in its free PDF reader, Adobe has included countless exceptions in their code to accommodate these ‘bad’ PDFs. This could explain why Reader is a bigger application than those of its competitors. So, the fact remains, if you want to be certain you can read any and all PDFs that come your way, irrespective of where they were created, Reader is still your best bet.

The PDF format continues to grow, and remarkably still has no real competitor. Despite its glitches, it certainly is an amazing success story.

MAC OS X: Skating to Where the Puck is Going to Be 

It’s worth taking a little detour towards the Apple Macintosh and Mac OS X. Why? Because PDF has been at the core of that operating system since it was unveiled as a Public Beta in September 2000.

Prior to OSX, Apple used QuickDraw to render images and text on screen, but this was superseded with Quartz, whose native file format is PDF.

Adobe never had a stake in OS X, and Apple didn't pay them any royalties for using the PDF standard. As mentioned above, Adobe released the PDF Reference document for other companies to create PDFs themselves. Apple just decided to make use of this format in a different way than might’ve been expected.

There is however a huge advantage to this for Macs over other competing operating systems: thanks to this decision, any application can save any document as a PDF, without the need for additional software.

This is extremely convenient, and seamless to boot. Essentially, if you can print it, you can PDF it, and since nearly all apps have a File > Print command, being able to convert virtually any document to PDF is effortless on that platform.

Actually, this extends beyond the Mac. Since the iPhone and iPad operating systems are based off of OSX, you can also do the same on Apple’s portable devices. The process there is slightly different: just take a screenshot of a document or webpage, and choose ‘Full Page’ instead of ‘Screen’, et voila: automatic PDF generation straight from your mobile OS.

For a format that’s become ubiquitous, having a system that is so wedded to it, and has been since its inception, sure was forward thinking on Apple’s part.

Features: The Ever-Evolving Format 

So, what’s so special about PDFs anyway? Put simply, it preserves the formatting, design, layout, and even embeds the fonts used within the document itself, so any computer anywhere could view and print a PDF, and it would look exactly as it was intended.

This was absolutely revolutionary in the 90s, but time waits for no format, and more features and functionally were incorporated into PDF over the years, including PDF mergers, PDF converters, and even OCR software.

Version 1.1 released in 1994 (the version that launched the free Acrobat Reader software), included, amongst others, the ability to embed hyperlinks into documents, and the option of password protecting files.

In 1996, we got 1.2, and forms which anyone reading a PDF could add data to. The CMYK color space was finally supported.

If you felt like partying like it was 1999, version 1.3 included support for smooth shading, annotations, and digital signatures.

The new millennium brought version 1.4 which introduced transparency to the mix, and 128-bit RC4 encryption.

PDF 1.5 brought layers and improved PDF compressor techniques. 1.6 added support for OpenType fonts (prior to that, these had to be embedded as either TrueType or Type1 fonts), and support for 3D data.

2006 saw the last revision of the format under Adobe’s control. It introduced improved support for comments, better security, and embedded printer settings such as paper selection, number of copies, and scaling.

Since then, Adobe added a layer of extensions which only their software supports, which allows them to keep adding features on their timetable, irrespective of what the ISO does. The drawback to these is that any third-party software is out of the loop.

Nor has the ISO been resting on the PDF’s laurels since they’re been in charge of its development. PDF 2.0 includes better halftone flexibility, more consistent transparency, AES-256-bit encryption, the ability to embed 3D measurements, and allows each page to have their own separate output intent (so a magazine could specify gloss paper for the front page, and matte for the others for instance).

This format as come a long way from its not-so humble beginnings, and continues to gain traction and find new uses and users. 

The Future 

No one can know what the future holds - remember when Adobe purchased Flash thinking it to be the next big thing, only to be a nightmare of security glitches, as well as battery draining headaches for mobile devices? Flash is thankfully no longer with us. Might this happen to PDF?

Although we don’t have a crystal ball here at TechRadar Pro, we’ll venture a guess: that seems highly unlikely.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the format faces is in the mobile space. At its very essence, it was designed to preserve a document’s formatting, and that’s actually an issue on a tiny mobile phone screen (let’s face it: even the biggest phones are tiny compared to a large computer display), so readers have to zoom and pan across pages to read the information, which is far from convenient, and could potentially hamper its success.

However, in the computer sphere, PDFs have truly become ubiquitous. The format still reigns supreme in desktop publishing environments, it’s widely used by law firms and corporations, and is pretty much the default for medical records, invoices, and many more. If you want to make sure a recipient sees a document exactly as intended, PDF is still the de-facto means of achieving that aim.

30 years on, there may be a few wobbles on the horizon, but PDF is as strong as it’s ever been. It has helped transform the digital landscape, and has adapted through the years, bringing ever more powerful features into the fray.

Happy 30th birthday PDF, and here’s to many more to come.

Steve Paris

Steve has been writing about technology since 2003. Starting with Digital Creative Arts, he's since added his tech expertise at titles such as iCreate, MacFormat, MacWorld, MacLife, and TechRadar. His focus is on the creative arts, like website builders, image manipulation, and filmmaking software, but he hasn’t shied away from more business-oriented software either. He uses many of the apps he writes about in his personal and professional life. Steve loves how computers have enabled everyone to delve into creative possibilities, and is always delighted to share his knowledge, expertise, and experience with readers.