PDF In-Depth

EDITORIAL: The next "PDF-killer"

August 07, 2011

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There's a part of me that really wants to get to the point where I can get away with behaving like a stereotypical grumpy old man. You know who I mean, the kind of character who hates change and constantly writes angry letters to the newspaper. Unfortunately, that admittedly dubious luxury is probably still a few years off. Still, seeing the internet all a-quiver over the latest "PDF-killer" has left me feeling a little jaded and world-weary, though. At the very least, my skin has taken on a certain waxy sheen of skepticism.

In my time, two of the biggest supposed PDF-killers have included Microsoft's Metro/InfoPath technology and Macromedia's Flashpaper. "Metro" was the name used to refer to a format that was integrated into Microsoft's forms solution, InfoPath, while Flashpaper is a relatively simple format designed for embedding and displaying Office-style documents within webpages. Both technologies were exciting enough at the time, and represented efforts to serve specialized functions that were among the many uses of PDF. As such, the inventors of these formats were able to focus on tailoring each format to its intended purpose without worrying about, for example, how a Flashpaper document would fit into a commercial printing workflow.

The new "PDF-killer" is actually a bit different in this regard, however. To give a little background on the new contender, it is called Computable Document Format (CDF), and has been rolled out by computation-maven, Conrad Wolfram and co. Basically, it is a programmable format that allows authors to build advanced interactivity into their documents. One example listed in Wolfram's blog and cited elsewhere involves illustrating the Doppler effect. The Doppler Effect refers to "the change in frequency of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the wave". Basically, it's the reason that a car horn sounds higher-pitched when the car is coming towards you than when it's driving away.

According to Wolfram's example, a content creator could embed some code that would allow readers to listen to the car horn, futz around with some settings (e.g., changing the car's velocity), and hear the differences. Reportedly, CDF will start as an open format, with a view to becoming a public standard. To me, this all sounds pretty cool, but it doesn't sound like a PDF-killer.

Firstly, CDF is similar to both Flashpaper and Metro/InfoPath in that it is quite highly specialized. While it offers functionality that PDF doesn't currently support, what CDF offers is a way to present highly interactive content. This focus means that the newer format, at least at this point, isn't even in the game with some uses of PDF, including, for instance, print workflows.

Second, and I think this is the biggest issue, is that no-one can view CDF. Sure, Wolfram offers a free viewer, but it's a 100MB+ download and a 500MB installation. Despite its ubiquity and stability, Adobe Reader still cops a lot of flak for the file size of its installer download. That said, the latest Windows version of Adobe Reader X weighs in at 50MB, which is positively svelte when compared to the CDF equivalent. Accordingly, I suspect that the download size of Wolfram CDF Player is likely to be something of a deterrent for many users.

Given the added inconvenience of downloading and managing yet another dedicated viewer, I suspect that it will take a "killer app" to convince reluctant users to adopt CDF. Basically, people are going to have to feel like they need access to CDF to justify the download. Additionally, content producers will likely want a decent installed user-base before they start producing premium content for a single-function viewer.

Despite all of that, I am excited by the possibilities of the technology. In light of the obstacles listed above, I think that the most likely path for CDF involves some kind of integration with PDF. As an open format (and perhaps later a public standard), there's nothing stopping Adobe and other developers from integrating CDF viewing into PDF viewers once the tech gains some traction. PDF is the rock and roll of software formats. It has been influenced by and incorporated features that were unimagined by its earliest users. Why couldn't there be a future in which PDF supported embedded CDF content? Something similar already happened with 3D, after all.

So, that's my two cents. What do you think? Let us know on the Planet PDF Forum.

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