PDF In-Depth

PDF Master: The world according to Zipper

May 13, 2004

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Editor's Note: Bernd Zipper has been involved in the prepress industry for more than 14 years. In the context of his activities as technology and strategy consultant, and as owner of ZIPCON NewMedia- und PrePress Consultinggesellschaft mbH, a business-consulting firm, he has been a pioneer in providing knowledge and high-quality information about the latest workflow and publishing technologies. PDF technologies, in particular, are a specialty of his. His "PDF+Print" series of books is internationally known for its coverage of PDF and other media technologies, and it has been republished as article series in Publishing Praxis, Deutscher Drucker, the Seybold Report in the U.S., and in other trade magazines. As publisher of the German on-line news service, pdfnews.de, he is sought after as a pragmatic consultant, moderator, and speaker.

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

BERND ZIPPER: I think it was 1992 or 1993. In those days, I was a prepress operator and department manager for a prepress firm in Essen. A dealer had brought us a stack of Adobe diskettes, and he was very proud of having gotten hold of them. At that time (during the DTP boom) one of my jobs was researching new technologies that might possibly give us a jump on the competition. But I found I couldn't do much with the pile of diskettes. Following installation, a tool called "PDF Writer" was recommended as a method for generating a 1:1 copy of my Quark layout. That would have been really nice, but unfortunately the fonts we used in the layout didn't show up in the copy, and that meant that we couldn't use PDF at the time. So I used PDF only for sending letters via Compuserve (my on-line service provider back then). By 1995, the PDF situation had changed. In the business I was running then, we were already producing completely digital catalogs on CD-ROM (including an ordering mechanism) in PDF. It didn't take long before it was clear to me: I needed to pay more attention to PDF.

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

ZIPPER: There are two areas. First, of course, there are the applications we use in our office. We use PDF to send jobs out for commercial printing, for tasks involving filling out forms in the office, and for archiving. My team and I also use PDF for presentations in some cases. Secondly, PDF is involved in the service I offer. In my consulting for printers, ad agencies, and manufacturers, I offer advice about how PDF can be used to optimize complex workflows and make them more reliable. In particular, I emphasize dynamic generation of PDF (also known as "PDF on the fly"). This concept has been well received, particularly in ad agencies and manufacturing firms, where some of the biggest opportunities for cost savings since the DTP revolution are now being uncovered. Working on the standardization of PDF is also among my tasks, especially with respect to the printing industry.

These are the primary areas of my writing and consulting. I also report on my PDF experience and analysis in my presentations and seminars. In addition, I continue to work on my book projects (e.g. PDF+Print, which is available in the local languages in the U.S., Europe, and Japan). On occasion, I also consult for vendors of PDF applications, on topics such as market introduction, monitoring of developments, conceptual approach, and localization of PDF tools.

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?

ZIPPER: For me, the most significant development in the field of PDF is not the technological progress (although that certainly has been important) but rather the international standardization of PDF, in the form of PDF/X and PDF/A. Collaboration among partners around the world can only be achieved if there are global standards. Members of the PDF/X development group -- pioneers such as Martin Bailey -- have been able to position PDF/X as an undisputed world-wide standard.

Looking at the technology issues, linking XML with PDF has been one of the most important new developments. Also, support for multi-media and integration with MS Office have helped make PDF easier to implement and more suitable for new applications. The implementation of layers, added in the latest version is another step forward -- if only there were a tool available that would let you create layers in a reasonably sane way, and above all, simply. The use of PDF in Apple's OS-X is also a great step forward, but a few areas still need to be fixed there as well. I think Apple should just invite in a few users and ask them what needs to be improved in the next version of PDF integration -- the current state of development is not particularly useful in practice.

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

ZIPPER: Put simply, PDF is an interface. With "standard" PDF, Adobe created the first international standard that, although it required a special browser, allowed people around the world to communicate. I won't attempt to list all the functions that make PDF so useful for people who work digitally. But I can't imagine doing without PDF as a method of exchanging material to be printed, as a forms tool, and in many other areas. The vision of John Warnock (who I admire not just as the inventor of PDF and PostScript, but also as one of the few technology leaders who makes sure that his developments are relevant to people and their reality) was crowned by the development of PDF. (He is also a great guy, by no means an out-of-touch techno-wizard.) So PDF is the connector, the medium of exchange among people, nations, languages, and thoughts.

SHEA: What's your next PDF project?

ZIPPER: Well, it's confidential. I'm very reluctant to talk in public about my clients and my current projects. But I can disclose that there will be a new book that will deal with the topic of "PDF on the fly." The background research for it is currently proceeding at top speed.

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?

ZIPPER: I believe, as Adobe has also recognized, that the greatest potential is in corporate and government applications. But Adobe's work in the print and media industries is not yet complete, so the task of PDF "evangelists" is not to conquer new industries, but to achieve better market penetration. There are still a lot of people who don't use PDF because the process of working with it seems too complex. But if PDF becomes better integrated with XML, I expect a new PDF boom. Together, PDF and XML guarantee that many kinds of work will become totally automated in the future; and it is in this type of automation (as with PDF on the fly, for example) where the greatest opportunity for growth lies.

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

ZIPPER: Well, as I already mentioned, PDF will become dynamic when teamed with XML, and will take on the next level of publishing: on-line production of prepress files. That will make remote proofing easier, and whole workflows will be automated -- including preflight and all subsequent steps -- and suddenly, many companies will find themselves "publishers" without ever having thought about it before. For some in the printing industry, this will no doubt be a difficult time if they don't show their corporate clients that these tasks can also be taken over by a print-and-media service provider.

In addition, PDF will surely be integrated into more and more programs. The fact that this hasn't happened sooner is most likely due to obstacles created by the licensing policies of one vendor or another.

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

ZIPPER: Oh, I can think of a lot of things. The creation and handling of layers needs to be simpler. Acrobat has also become very complex to operate. Adobe's approach is close to optimal for the current offering, but I would like to see a type of "start-up selector" that would allow Acrobat to be launched in various different modes. Then, it would be possible to arrange things so that even a beginner could convert PDF files to PDF/X, or so that a professional could hide a few options to avoid being constantly overwhelmed by the multitude of functions. There is still a great deal for Adobe to do in the area of OS-X support. And the forms functionality needs to be made still simpler. There is an "optimizer" in the latest version, and this can be made still better. The competing tools, such as Apago's PDF Enhancer, show how this can be done.

So there is still much to be done. And perhaps Adobe needs to rethink its Acrobat licensing model. Otherwise, cheaper but less-functional products will take over the corporate market in the long run.

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.

ZIPPER: Being an old Macintosh fan, I think PDF support in OS-X is a hot topic. Peter Kleinheider and I published a comprehensive analysis of this in The Seybold Report, and I think it's worthy of study. I strongly recommend reading that article.

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