PDF In-Depth

The Ghost of PDFWriter Past

December 18, 2001

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Good-bye ... (and Good Riddance?) ... to easy-to-create, often bad PDFs

We've come a long way since the early days of Acrobat and PDF. PDF is taking the print publishing world by storm, and shows no signs of letting up. PDF hasn't exactly taken over the Internet, but its contribution is significant, and continues to increase. Perhaps less evident, but equally significant is Web Capture's ability to make existing HTML content even better by easily converting it to PDF. Despite a slow start for eBooks, PDF is already establishing itself as a big player in that market.

On the PDF creation side, there are many impressive advances as well. Distiller is more powerful than ever, and Acrobat Assistant makes it so convenient to use. Acrobat has a bag full of import and export filters, and batch capabilities, and a quick look at the PDF Store (www.pdfstore.com) shows a large number of PDF tools available to meet almost every need.

Adobe is now focusing heavily on the enterprise world with offerings like the new Acrobat 5 online collaboration system, powerful Microsoft Office macros, a versatile digital signature system, and the new Adobe Database Connectivity features.

The current PDF 1.4 specification has great features such as true transparency, XML, and tagging. Powerful Acrobat plug-ins can now be written out of simple JavaScript, and so can batch sequences. Accessibility features abound. Text to speech is possible for Windows users. There are scores of great online PDF services. Many applications now offer direct export to PDF, and features are plentiful there as well. Many of them automatically create links, bookmarks, apply encryption, embed fonts, produce tagged PDF and more. Repurposing your PDF content is also much easier.

PDFWriter Despite all the good news, there is a ghost of sorts that is still lurking around the PDF world. I'm referring to PDFWriter. For those of you not familiar with this tool, PDFWriter is simply a virtual printer driver that directly converts an open document (such as a Word, Wordperfect, or text file) into a PDF file. At first sight PDFWriter seems impressive with its assortment of options and ease of use (just like printing), but as many Acrobat users know, PDFWriter is not without problems, serious problems.

Note: If you don't know what PDFWriter is, and are not interested in soon-to-be-obsolete technology, read no further. You may resume your surfing.

Problem #1: PDFWriter has been around since the early days, but it has not been significantly upgraded since the days of Acrobat 3. It can only produce PDF 1.2 files. The current PDF version, as stated above, is 1.4. Therefore, files created with PDFWriter face a major backward compatibility obstacle, which will only worsen by the day.

Problem #2: PDFWriter is graphically challenged. It can usually manage simple tasks such as preserving lines around table cells and keeping a flat background color, but anything more complex than this becomes risky business. Then there is the issue of EPS which it can't deal with at all. Today, fancy graphics are everywhere, and that makes PDFWriter a very limiting product to use.

Problem #3: PDFWriter is a technological simpleton. By this I mean that it's not equipped to deal with complex layouts, or long documents. This makes PDFWriter even more haunting to use. It also lacks the ability to generate any additional PDF features such as links, bookmarks, metadata, and applying security passwords.

PDFWriter Where Art Thou?

If you use Acrobat 5 you may have noticed the absence of PDFWriter. I was actually so puzzled at the absence of this long existing component that I thought I had forgotten to install it, so I proceeded to do a re-install of Acrobat 5. I used the standard install option like I did the first time, and again PDFWriter was missing!

Something strange was definitely happening, so it was time for me to dig deeper. Sure enough, Adobe's latest documentation clearly states that PDFWriter is no longer installed with the standard Acrobat 5 installation. Hurray! Why am I so excited? Because in my opinion, PDFWriter has long been behind a lot of bad press about PDF. PDFWriter is responsible for so many frustrations and bad PDF files, that I feel this is one case where the loss of a tool is actually a blessing.

This loss is far from complete I'm afraid. As Adobe is showing by its approach, it's not easy to give people something and then take it away. Many people are undoubtedly attached to PDFWriter for its ease of use. I suspect that's why it hasn't been completely removed from Acrobat 5...yet. For those who suffer from excessive withdrawal symptoms, there is still the possibility of installing PDFWriter with Acrobat 5 by doing a custom install. But I ask, why delay the inevitable?

Nearly all the feedback I receive from the PDF community indicates a sense of relief from knowing that this mediocre tool will soon cease to be a hindrance to progressive developments. Try as I may, I cannot come up with a single good reason for keeping PDFWriter around any longer. There is no longer a shortage of powerful, easy to use, PDF creation tools. We now have access to scores of commercial and free tools that are far better than PDFWriter.

So, to PDFWriter I say, hope you enjoyed your stay, here's your hat, and there's the door, good-bye!

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