PDF In-Depth

Why eBooks and mobile devices don't (yet) pose an existential threat to the PDF

February 02, 2016

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Continuous upheaval is what makes watching the technology industry so exciting. David vs. Goliath battles are waged every day, with startups often winning against much larger businesses. For years and years, many have predicted the decline of the PDF given its age and perceived disadvantages. Today, with the PDF losing ground in emerging areas like mobile and eBooks, the calls for its ultimate demise are growing louder. But will the PDF ultimately fall? To answer this question, let's first look at some theory.

Why the mobile and eBook markets matter

The process of how technology startups unseat incumbents is best explained by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who coined the theory of disruptive innovation. According to his theory, startups first target the least attractive (that is, the least profitable) customer segment that is ignored by incumbents. Thus successful startups tend to approach the market using a radically different business model or product. Startups who attempt to compete against incumbents head-on almost always fail.


Innovation Image courtesy of Boegh

After learning how to wring out profits from a less attractive client base, they re-invest their profits into their product in order to target more upmarket (and lucrative) clients. Once their product or service becomes good enough, they start winning customers previously served by the incumbents. Their novel approach means that startups can offer superior pricing, features or both. At the final stage, startups topple incumbents by winning over their most lucrative customers. At that point, the cycle starts again!

Anyone familiar with Christensen's theory may believe that the decline of PDF in newer, less attractive segments (that is, eBooks and mobile) spells doom for the file format. According to this logic, the PDF is following a familiar path that leads to its ultimate upheaval. My argument is that this isn't the case for three reasons.

eBook formats don't compete against PDF

In the words of Mary Siderwicz, from the World Wide Web Consortium, "An ebook is a frozen website packaged in a container." Given that eBook readers come in a variety of sizes, the primary function of a good eBook format is to display content that can be viewed on any screen size. Sound familiar? That's because HTML5 and CSS3 were designed to address the same issue. EPUB 3, the latest standard of EPUB, is based directly on HTML5 and CSS3. EPUB files are thus nothing more than frozen HTML5/CSS3 files in a container.

Flexibility across different screen sizes is where HTML (and by extension, EPUB) shines, and this is the exact opposite of the core purpose of the PDF. Given that the PDF's core purpose is to reproduce a paper document with perfect fidelity, it doesn't compete against EPUB or HTML at all. PDF came about long after HTML, and continues to fill this important need.

Tagged PDFs solve most issues for smaller devices

While using a PDF guarantees that the recipient will be able to read a file in its original and intended formatting, there is a problem if a user can't read a PDF at all on a smaller device.

For this reason tagged PDF technology allows a PDF to be re-flowed and magnified. This mostly mitigates the issue of readability on smaller devices such as smartphones. Today, most popular mobile PDF readers such as Adobe Reader and Foxit Mobile now fully support text re-flow. In addition, PDFs created from premium software products such as Adobe Acrobat or Nuance Power PDF are also tagged by default. While PDFs created by printing to PDF aren't usually tagged correctly (or at all), one can expect this to change in the future given the large increase in the number of mobile devices.

In short, the PDF is adapting to a changing world that where documents aren't printed on A4 sheets of paper. While they continue to serve the core need of maintaining a document's formatting, they are also flexible enough to re-flow for smaller devices. While PDF won't be replacing HTML anytime soon, it's unlikely that another file format will be able to be able to make significant headway in mobile given the ongoing growth of tagged PDFs.

The PDF is protected by a powerful ecosystem

Lastly, the ecosystem supporting PDF in three key areas helps ensure its survival.

Firstly, almost every device in the world can read a PDF without the need for downloading a specialized reader. This largely isn't true for competing file formats. This is because the underlying PDF reader technology is both lightweight and usually free. It's hard to find devices today that don't come with in-built PDF reading technology.

Secondly, the format is supported by a large variety of third-party PDF software companies and consultants. The PDF has been around since 1993, and if you have a PDF-related issue and a reasonable budget, there are a variety of solution providers (in addition to Adobe) who can help you solve your problem. Thus standardizing in PDF is a relatively safe choice.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the PDF format enjoys substantial support in its core market of large enterprise and government. PDF files cannot be changed without leaving a clear footprint. Thus they have become the preferred format (although not the only format) when presenting digital evidence in courts of developed countries (including the US). While image files are also static (e.g. JPG), they can be changed without leaving any trails. Thus PDFs are mostly used in settings such as government, law or business. Most forms and legal contracts are executed in PDF for this purpose.

While the ecosystem doesn't guarantee the survival of the format, it's a fairly safe buffer against a new entrant for at least the next decade. Until a new format is (1) globally adopted by most devices, (2) builds an ecosystem of third-party vendors and (3) earns the trust of large enterprise and government, the PDF is here to stay.

About Sophie Knowles

Sophie is the founder of PDF Pro, an online PDF service allowing users to create, edit and convert PDF files. A software engineer by background, Sophie is dedicated to helping others be more productive.

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