PDF In-Depth

Editorial: Quality before quantity

June 08, 2005

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Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I worked in technical and sales support for a reseller of PDF software. One problem that I came up against again and again was the issue of badly formed or corrupted PDF files. I'm not talking about user error here, either, although that can also be a major issue. I'm talking about bad PDFs that may pass muster (i.e. open) with Adobe Reader, but are in fact corrupt. It's a bit scary to think that there are processes out there creating bad PDF files capable of choking workflows due to minor errors that nevertheless still result in incompatibilities.

I'll borrow a catchphrase from PDF prepress guru Stephan Jaeggi here, "Garbage in equals garbage out." He is absolutely right! Although it's most obvious in the print space -- where a given document will need to be processed by (at least) an author, a reviewer, a prepress worker and a printer -- it's a universal problem for any PDF workflow. Any errors early in the process will be inherited by subsequent steps, and can wreak havoc on the final product unless the document is sent back to be fixed. If the problem is in the creation technology used, then the final file can still cause problems through no fault of the people who have processed the PDF document.

So what is a "Good PDF" anyway? It's an excellent question, and one which has not been adequately answered in a meaningful way. Personally, I'd like to see Adobe form a consortium with developers and industry gurus for the specific purpose of providing an answer. After establishing the criteria for what constituted a good PDF, the group would then formulate methods to help developers conform to the PDF Specification -- especially in areas where the specification may be somewhat ambiguous.

Ultimately, the fruits of this labor should include a clearly and unambiguously annotated version of the PDF Specification and a free validation plug-in for Adobe Reader that checks PDF files for compliance. Detailed reporting and fixing of offending PDF files could remain the province of third-party developers such as PDF Tools AG, which already offers a powerful product for the repair of PDF files, the 3-Heights PDF Repair Tool.

As an open format with innate commercial relevance, PDF documents need to be both valid and standard, regardless of the creation process chosen. Anything less jeopardizes their portability, and "Portable" is the crucial keyword that literally put the "P" in PDF.

Frankly, I'm hopeful but not expecting any action on this in the short term. That said, seeing the adoption of effective measures for the creation and maintenance of good PDF documents would do an erstwhile tech supporter's old heart good. Besides, ensuring valid PDFs everywhere you look is sound business for all, isn't it?

Want to talk about this topic? Visit the Planet PDF Forum's Talkback Conference and put in your two cents.

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