PDF In-Depth

PDF/A Update: Exclusive interview with Dr. Hans Bärfuss, CEO, PDF Tools AG

October 30, 2008

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At Planet PDF, one of our goals is to always update our readers on all the latest and greatest affecting the PDF arena and its users. So we thought it might be good to get an exclusive with Dr. Hans Bärfuss, CEO, PDF Tools AG. (Thanks to Carlos Nessi, PDF Tools AG for helping us organize this.)

Dr. Hans Bärfuss, CEO of PDF Tools AG, is an internationally acclaimed expert in PDF technology. Dr. Bärfuss is the official representative of Switzerland in the ISO TC 171 working group for PDF/A (ISO 19005) and PDF 1.7 (ISO 32000) -- and he also holds the position of Vice President of the PDF/A Competence Centre, which was co-founded by PDF Tools AG.

We caught up with Dr. Bärfuss and Nessi right after the ARMA Conference and Expo for the series of questions that follow below.

NETTIE HARTSOCK, Planet PDF Contributing Editor: How was the conference, and what do you see for the future in terms of long-term archiving?

DR. HANS BÄRFUSS, CEO, PDF Tools AG: The ARMA Conference & Expo was popular. Long-term archival was the hottest topic at the conference. Visitor feedback also shows that there is a huge demand for education to improve understanding of PDF/A and the consequences for existing businesses if PDF/A is implemented. The potential for long-term archival is very significant. Not only do people realize that corporate information needs to be secured for future use, but corporations -- and even more so governments -- are feeling an increased pressure to apply archival standards similar to what they are seeing in Europe. So the issue of "mandatory long-term archival standards" is not a question of whether it will happen, but rather when it will happen.

Until about 3 years ago, we were seeing apathy towards the topic of long-term archival, never mind any developments. Quantities of digital documents were increasing exponentially, but none of the existing technologies and strategies for long-term archiving really met the needs for a safe and permanent solution. Often, archival involved the use of proprietary technologies. When PDF/A was introduced as an ISO standard in October 2005, Records Managers along with IT Professionals recognized how this standard could address their retention challenges. The relentless spread of the new PDF/A standard found wide acceptance among governments and global corporations.

These encouraging developments only strengthen the position of PDF/A as the de-facto standard for long-term archiving. As a result of these two perspectives, we clearly see that PDF/A will become the standard for the long-term archival of digital documents.

HARTSOCK: Why is long-term archival so important and how does PDF/A empower traditional archiving efforts?

BÄRFUSS: Long-term information accessibility is not a luxury, it is a must. PDF/A consolidates many earlier technologies into one common format. It provides fast and structured access to volumes of documents larger than were ever anticipated with earlier technologies. And with the use of modern digital signature technologies, it (PDF/A) addresses some of the biggest challenges facing Records Management on a daily basis.

The growth of digital document content is even surpassing regular structured database content. Many operations did not foresee this trend, which jeopardizes the long-term archival of digital document content. Not only is long-term archival important from a legal/liability perspective, it also is relevant to the so-called "Digital Dark Age" -- where the history of an entire generation could be lost. Did you ever think of what would happen if you put a Word or PDF version 1.1 document in a time capsule? There are not many alternatives to PDF/A to address these challenges.

Both in traditional and digital long-term archival, certain criteria are critical, such as long-term readability and accessibility, unambiguous reproducibility, self-containment, authenticity and integrity of data, full text search ability, low space consumption and process automation through embedded metadata.

PDF/A is intended to address these criteria.

HARTSOCK: What do people need to understand in terms of the differences between a "regular" PDF document or a PDF/A file? What benefits does using the PDF/A give in terms of preserving their visual appearance?

BÄRFUSS: It is not complicated. In fact, the PDF/A standard makes things easier. The benefit is that you do preserve the visual appearance with PDF/A -- otherwise you can't be really sure!

A "regular" PDF today may contain an almost infinite set of features. Some of these features, such as JavaScript, form fields, 3D-graphics, alternate content or references to external resources (e.g., fonts), are not suitable for long-term archival according to the criteria I mentioned earlier. Such features are not allowed in PDF/A files. For example, fonts and colour profiles have to be embedded to ensure that the archived copy's appearance is exactly the same as that of the original document. The PDF/A standard also provides all the necessary information to build a PDF/A-compliant viewer, even 50 years from now. PDF/A is an ISO-standard, and this status cannot be revoked by the ISO.

HARTSOCK: What is most exciting about being in the forefront of this digital revolution in PDFs and what should PDF users look for in the next two years in terms of PDF technology?

BÄRFUSS: PDF has been a major business focus for me and my companies over the past 15 years. It was fascinating to see how PDF grew through the years, becoming the most important document format worldwide, thanks to its unique usability and readability. PDF/A is a natural development based on PDF's long-term progress, and s much more than just a file format. It is a solution to preserve documents, which will let future generations understand the world we are living in today. That is what motivates me to invest time and money in the project. As Swiss representative in the ISO-committee, we are one of the major contributors for PDF/A-2 -- the next step in the development of PDF/A -- and PDF 1.7 standardization.

As far as PDF documents are meant to be used for long-term archiving, it is very important to use products that fully conform to PDF/A and that have been tested with the "Isartor" test suite, which we have developed with other members of the PDF/A Competence Centre. Unfortunately, there are many tools on the market which do not guarantee that PDF documents can be read properly in the future and keep the visual appearance of the original documents.

For professional users, I would strongly recommend the use of a PDF/A validator to make sure that if the product is labelled "PDF/A compliant", then it 100% conforms to the ISO standard.

As the development of the PDF/A standard continues, many more features will be available within the next few years. It might even be possible to store movies and sound in PDF/A format in the future, making PDF/A the universal format for long-term archiving.

HARTSOCK: Thanks so much Dr. Bärfuss.

Please see below for additional resources on the PDF/A standards.

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