PDF In-Depth

PDF Master: Mark Stephens

August 10, 2014

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The way we think about PDF has changed markedly since its introduction in the early 90s. PDF has moved from a proprietary-but-open format to having particular subtypes of PDF formally defined and recognized as standards (e.g., PDF/A for archiving, PDF/X for print exchange). The need for these standards reflected the format's rapidly expanding flexibility, which in turn was driven by the increasingly diverse uses to which PDF was being put. In 2008, PDF itself was formally recognized as a global standard, now controlled by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as ISO 32000-1:2008.

The culture among those who provide PDF-based solutions has also changed over time. In the early days, the rather mannerly PDF community featured numerous 3rd-party developers who offered specialized functionality and often avoided aggressive, direct competition with others. As the community grew, vendors needed to expand, diversify and consolidate to stay relevant, and competition within the PDF industry became more intense. Today, the PDF industry is a vibrant, yet drastically different beast than it was two decades ago.

In order to take stock, reflect and commemorate more than 20 years of PDF, we here at Planet PDF have conducted a new series of interviews with current PDF Masters, movers and shakers in the PDF universe.

One fascinating thing about many of the prominent figures in PDF is the divers pathways they have taken to get to where they are. Armed with a dry wit and an MA in Medieval history, our first PDF Master of 2014 leveraged his singular gifts to establish a business (IDRsolutions) in 1999, with a view to producing a commercial, Java-based developer library for displaying and rendering PDFs (JPedal). IDRsolutions has grown in size and scope, and has since released an additional product for converting PDFs into HTML5 and SVG (JPDF2HTML5). Meanwhile, JPedal has now been licensed to a wide range of companies, including Adobe Systems, which has integrated the Java-based library into ColdFusion.

While Mark Stephens' previous background might make his move to PDF development seem to be something of a non sequitur, his interest in history might speak to a patience that is crucial for both developers and those who would build their businesses from scratch. Perhaps this link also reflects a certain nostalgia. Stephens is the product of a friendlier era in PDF development. Like many of us, he fondly remembers the collegial Seybold conferences of yore, and remains an active and generous contributor of technical content. He regularly speaks on Java, PDF and HTML5 at conferences such as JavaOne, DevFest and others.

Specifically, he will be attending JavaOne in San Francisco (September 28 - October 4), where you just might spot him talking shop with vendors in neighbouring stands. He also writes for the IDRsolutions blog, and contributes with varying frequency to a range of blogs, forums and web sites, including Planet PDF.

PLANET PDF: When and why did you first get involved with Acrobat/PDF?

MARK STEPHENS, CEO, IDRsolutions: I joined the PDF scene in 1997 when I was working at the Times Newspaper group in London (and PDF has always been very big in publishing).

PLANET PDF: For those who don't know, what is it that you are doing with PDF right now?

STEPHENS: We are continuing to develop and support JPedal, which is a Java library for working with PDF files. It can view, print, extract, etc. We are currently working on finishing a new version of the viewer in JavaFX, which is actually a much better fit for PDF internally, and gives our customers far more options and features in their applications. We are also working on adding XFA support to the library.

We also develop JPDF2HTML5, which converts PDF files to both HTML5 and SVG. With the rise of mobile, publishers are finding it increasingly important to provide a solution that works cross platform, and by allowing PDF files to be natively supported in the browser, this allows them to provide the same experience regardless of whether the end user is using a computer, tablet or mobile phone. We are currently finishing the XFA forms to HTML5 version. We actually provide a free online version (http://convert.idrsolutions.com) of the converter, which has proved to be very popular.

PLANET PDF: What's your next PDF project (as much as you *can* say, at least)?

STEPHENS: The current plan is to continue working on both the JPedal library and JPDF2HTML5 converter, but the industry is moving so quickly that who knows what we might be adding next year!

PLANET PDF: Briefly describe the most significant change in the evolution or use of the technology since you first began working with PDF, and why do you consider it significant?

STEPHENS: When I started with PDF 1.3 the manual was much slimmer than it is now! The PDF specification includes a lot of technologies and this makes it very flexible but also harder for vendors to support. For example we had to write our own jbig2 decoder library. Lots of options also makes it harder for customers to make best use of the features. I feel some of the technology (like 3D) is still held back by a lack of general support.

PLANET PDF: With Creative Cloud, Adobe is shifting towards more of a focus on a subscription-based model. What impact do you think this will have on the world of PDF, both from a developer/solutions provider standpoint and user perspective?

STEPHENS: I think it makes a lot of sense (and we are using it with our HTML product). I think it allows customers to better spread their cost and companies to keep improving their products incrementally rather than having a new block-buster every 18 months.

PLANET PDF: Pondering the future of PDF, what most excites you about the next few years?

STEPHENS: I think PDF has reached a state of maturity where it has become a real enabling technology for a lot of industries (printing, packaging, archiving, publishing, document management, workflow) and will enable companies to build some really interesting solutions for these markets.

PLANET PDF: Briefly describe a common misconception about or frequent problem you've seen with PDF that you'd like to try to clarify for others and/or provide a tip to address.

STEPHENS: PDF is not very good for text extraction... PDF has excellent structure (and it is improved in 2.0) if people make use of it. PDF does not lack features, it is more a case of people not making use of the features.

PLANET PDF: What are your favorite PDF tools, applications, SDKs or services (unrelated to your company or business) and why?

STEPHENS: In the Java space, iText is an excellent library to create and edit PDFs. We actually have the stand next to them at JavaOne (San Francisco) in September so I will be using the opportunity to quiz them and push my pet features wishlist.

iText also has a free tool called RUPS which is very useful for looking inside PDF files.

PLANET PDF: How has developing with PDF changed since the formal recognition of the various PDF standards?

STEPHENS: Adobe is still a big and important player but being an Open standard means it attracts a much wider range of contributors. And the development of subsets (PDF/A, PDF/X, etc) has made it far more manageable and useful in specific use cases.

PLANET PDF: How has the proliferation of relatively powerful mobile devices and widespread data access changed the way people work with PDF?

STEPHENS: It has dramatically altered the way people interact with the files (I now find myself swiping my computer screen) and the platforms used.

PLANET PDF: What impact has the rise of mobile/portable had for those providing PDF-based solutions?

STEPHENS: A smaller screen and a less powerful device often means moving work back to the server. And people expect their work to be available across multiple devices in a synchronized way.

PLANET PDF: Where do you see the most important functional gap in what's out there? Tell me about your dream PDF tool, SDK or whatever. Why do you think it doesn't exist yet?

STEPHENS: I think we are behind now in the revolution brought by mobile. I would like to see location functionality in the PDF spec. So I could walk around a 3D of a building and it could show me where I am and what I can see in the PDF view on my mobile (and where my friends are). PDF documents could be much more aware of their location and geared towards social media.

PLANET PDF: Is there anything important you didn't feel that we covered? Please tell me and our readers about it!

STEPHENS: I think that it is great to look back but we believe PDF has a great future and the best years are still in front of us.

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