PDF In-Depth

PDF Master: PDF/X, Acrobat 6, and the future

May 25, 2004


DAN SHEA: Can you please give our readers a quick biography?

Martin BAILEY: About twenty years ago I was a biologist, but realized I enjoyed playing with computers more. I happened to take a job programming for print, and I've stayed in the industry ever since. In that time I've been a programmer, bureau manager, production manager, Technical Director, Director of Research, pre-sales support, technical support, product manager and goodness knows what else. My current job includes programming, standards development, product requirements analysis and technical marketing. In the standards development I chair the CGATS and ISO task forces defining PDF/X, and I'm CEO of CIP4, developing JDF. I used to joke that my job title, "Senior Technical Consultant", means that I do everything that doesn't fall into anyone else's job description; then I realized I wasn't joking!

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

BAILEY: I must make a very clear distinction between the PDF format and Adobe Acrobat. They are definitely not the same thing. Acrobat is simply one of many tools that can create and use PDF.

I first heard of "Editable PostScript" at Seybold San Jose in 1991, but it was a few more years until I got involved. I wrote the first prototype PDF support for the Harlequin RIP in the mid 90's to help gauge our OEMs need for a 'real' product.

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

BAILEY: Within Global Graphics I help to define requirements around PDF in the graphic arts market for many of our products, including the Harlequin RIP and Jaws PDF Technologies.

I also work on developing and promoting PDF/X, although right now we're in a quiet period on that development, and I'm keeping a watching brief on other PDF-based standards developments.

Incidentally, I see my work on JDF as another facet of the solution to the same issues that led to the idea of PDF/X in the first place. Increased automation with JDF requires good process control if you're to avoid simply making more waste, faster. PDF/X is an important part of providing process control in the upstream parts of a print workflow.

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

BAILEY: When I started working with PDF it really wasn't completely suited for use in the graphic arts, and there was what now seems like a ridiculous optimism about its features. Many people said it was so good you didn't need to pre-flight it, for instance.

In the years since then the PDF format has bridged pretty much all of the gaps in the early versions, and that's been accompanied by a much greater realism about what will or will not work.

SHEA: Tell me, what is it about PDF that makes it useful to so many different people?

BAILEY: The core functionality of PDF is obviously the ability to carry around a representation of virtually any page in a way that reliably maintains the formatting. It's amazing how many people need simply that. Because it can be used for very complex pages it's suitable for all the documentation needs of a company. There are lots of other formats around that can handle simple to moderately complex pages, but people don't want to have to use a different format for different types of documents.

Of course, everyone in different businesses then also needs something else on top, but those extra bits are often relatively minor in comparison. Note that I'm talking here about PDF, not really about tools that handle PDF. The old 80-20 rule definitely applies; 80% of users will only ever use 20% of the functionality that could be provided by specialized tools based on PDF for specialized markets.

SHEA: What's your next PDF project?

BAILEY: Towards the end of this year we'll be re-starting PDF/X development to bring out a new revision compatible with PDF 1.5. We'll know that we have our scheduling about right if we get roughly equal numbers of people complaining about it taking so long to allow layers in PDF/X and those complaining that they can't cope with a new revision because that confuses matters too much. The new version is unlikely to be published much before the end of 2005.

I have some PDF projects inside Global Graphics lined up as well, but I'm afraid there's nothing I can talk about at the moment. Watch this space!

SHEA: Acrobat and PDF are now used in so many industries and in so many ways; do you see new areas that perhaps haven't yet been tapped? Where do you see the greatest potential for growth?

BAILEY: My prime focus is the print industry. I know there are some fascinating possibilities for PDF in other areas, but I don't really have the time to concentrate on those. Within print there's still a big job to do in encouraging the use of PDF and providing a complete tool set for a robust, reliable workflow.

SHEA: What do you see in the future of PDF?

BAILEY: In the use of PDF, and in tool-sets based on it ... more of everything!

On the other hand, and perhaps counter to expectations, if I had my wish it would be for little or no change to the PDF format itself. The print industry, like some others, requires a high degree of predictability in the rendering of PDF files. If the various people in a print workflow have many different versions of many different products, each of them designed to handle different ranges of versions of PDF, you can immediately see how errors can happen.

The best thing that Adobe could do to increase the use of PDF in print would be to not bring out any new versions of PDF for a few years. A little stability would be a very good thing!

Not bringing out new versions of PDF definitely doesn't have to mean no new versions of the tools that use it, like Acrobat or our own Jaws PDF Creator, Jaws RIP or Harlequin RIP. There are several places where functionality and ease of use could be improved in many of those tools without requiring anything new in the format itself.

Second best would be a little more care in ensuring that new features will be recognized as such by an older reader. With PDF 1.4 we had the situation where a PDF 1.3 reader wouldn't see the flags for transparency and would render objects as opaque. With PDF 1.5 we have something similar where a PDF 1.4 reader won't see that objects are marked as optional content (layers) and will render everything. You can contrast those with JPEG2000 support or 16-bit images (both new in PDF 1.5), where an older reader will know that it can't handle the file appropriately. I'm a great believer in avoiding potential problems instead of having to clear up the mess afterwards.

SHEA: What can Adobe change in the next version of Acrobat to make it better?

BAILEY: As you might expect, I'm going to decline to comment on what Adobe could do to make Acrobat better. After all, Global Graphics and our OEM partners provide some of the most important competing products!

SHEA: Can Acrobat and PDF be all things to all people?

BAILEY: Well, yes and no. PDF is an enormously flexible container for graphical content and other data. It can be used to provide the functionality that many people need, but that very flexibility can create problems for those who require consistently predictable handling of files.

That's why we developed PDF/X; a subset of PDF (so most PDF tools can continue to be used with it), but deliberately restricted to address reliability considerations.

That's obviously an idea that's taken root, with work now in progress on other PDF subsets for long-term archival, for engineering, and for accessibility. I will admit to some concerns about an explosion of this kind of subset, and I hope that those involved will consider how they can interact. It would be unfortunate if it was not possible to generate engineering documents that are accessible to disabled readers and that are suitable for archiving.

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

BAILEY: At the risk of sounding as if the record's stuck...

I've heard lots of print service providers and publishers say that they can't accept PDF/X files, because they don't have the tools, or because it's too difficult. The only thing in a PDF/X file that is not described in the PDF reference manual is the little label that says "this is a PDF/X file". In other words, if they can accept PDF, they already have everything they need to work with PDF/X just as well.

Yes, there is some data in PDF/X files that many PDF tools will ignore. That just defines which printing condition (dot gain, ink colors etc) the file was prepared for. In a file that only contains CMYK (possibly with spot colors as well), which means in all PDF/X-1a, and many PDF/X-3 files, that data is best regarded as something to preflight against rather than something that will be used while processing the data.

I know of some people producing files for submission to publishers and printers who started creating PDF/X some time ago, without even informing the people they send files to, to assist their own file preparation disciplines and testing processes. All of those report no problems, even when sending the files to companies who said they couldn't accept PDF/X.

Yes, for a service provider to get the maximum benefit from PDF/X they may need to upgrade or extend their software or their internal procedures, but even without doing that the number of poor files supplied is likely to drop with PDF/X.

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