PDF In-Depth

PDF Master: Thomas Merz's Take on PDF and Acrobat

September 08, 2004


PDFlib GmbH founder and head Thomas Merz is a long time expert in the areas of PostScript, cryptography and of course PDF. His thorough knowledge of PDF internals ultimately allowed him to create PDFlib -- a programming library which allows developers to manipulate PDF files and build this functionality into their applications or server environments.

Before starting PDFlib GmbH in 2000, Merz worked with various aspects of the computer and publishing industry, including stints as a software developer, book author, desktop publisher, technical translator, University lecturer, software trainer and IT consultant.

I recently caught up with the seasoned speaker and author to talk about PDF, the path that's taken him to this point, and what the future holds for the PDF format.

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

THOMAS MERZ, President, PDFlib GmbH: During the mid-eighties, one of my University professors introduced something brand-new at the time, called PostScript. I immediately got hooked, and a few years later I found myself writing books on PostScript and Type 1 fonts. Working with Adobe technology naturally made me an early adopter of Acrobat and PDF.

In 1996 I published a book called "PostScript & PDF Bible". People said something like "the PostScript part of the book is great - but why did you include this PDF stuff?". Acrobat and PDF were still ahead of their time.

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

MERZ: My company PDFlib GmbH supplies software developers with components for creating and processing PDF documents. Having written a generic PostScript driver library in the early nineties, doing the equivalent for PDF was a natural choice. In 1996 I started working on a software library called PDFlib, and created the slogan "PDF on the fly" for it. As interest in Acrobat and PDF increased, so did the demand for software solutions which could deal with PDF without having Acrobat installed. What started out as a personal toy project eventually served as foundation for a prospering software company.

I think it's fair to say that PDFlib sparked a new category of software in the PDF space in the late 90s. Cross-platform and robust PDF generation are still core properties of our products.

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?

MERZ: There are many significant changes for everyday use, or for increasing Acrobat's value in individual industry segments. However, I believe that the ability to store document structure information within PDF (Tagged PDF) will be perceived as the most significant change in the long term - even if most users today may not even be aware of its benefits. Considering PDF's proven strengths in preserving document appearance and the XML hype in recent years, combining structure and appearance in a single document format was certainly an important move.

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

MERZ: Its universal approach to the "document" metaphor which is at the heart of most of people's activities, and the fact that it has been designed and implemented by people with a lot of experience in important areas such as rendering, fonts, and color.

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?

MERZ: Acrobat/PDF has such a broad appeal that I don't think there's any major industry left which doesn't yet use it. There may be some potential in the consumer area, but that's more a marketing challenge and not a technical one.

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

MERZ: I'm sure our friends at Adobe will come up with new ideas to make Acrobat/PDF useful in even more areas for even more users...

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

MERZ: Obviously there are many features which may be useful to some fraction of the user community, or some industry segments. However, I think that Acrobat needs some new ideas regarding configuration: Acrobat 6 is a big and powerful application, which has its drawbacks in terms of usability, memory usage, startup time etc. The user doesn't need all features all of the time, and it may be helpful to easily configure a "prepress Acrobat", "office Acrobat" "view-only Acrobat" and similar profiles. I am aware of the technical and usability challenges related to such a configurable version of Acrobat, but it would definitely be a big enhancement for many users.

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

MERZ: It more all less tries this already, but as mentioned above it should also try to hide some of its capabilities sometimes...

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.

MERZ: Many people confuse PDF with an editable document format. The fact that we can do so much with PDFs still doesn't invalidate some basic facts. For example, searching and replacing text in PDFs may solve some problems for some people, but it's not a recommended general solution. Opening up PDFs in your favorite graphics application (e.g. for imposition or last-minute corrections) may work, but there's a fair chance that such "tricks" will do more harm rather than solve a problem. Expanding the barriers of existing technology is a always nice, but don't use a hammer to solve all problems in the world.

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