PDF In-Depth

No, PDF is NOT owned by Adobe!

May 20, 2010


Editor's Note: Duff Johnson is the CEO of Appligent Document Solutions. This article originally appeared on Appligent.com, and has been reprinted with permission.

"Adobe owns PDF, so PDF is a proprietary format."

I've heard it said so often. I've decide to correct it once and for all.

While PDF was invented by Adobe, the company no longer owns PDF. We all do.

Let me explain.

Most people closely identify PDF with Adobe Systems, and I can't fault the disinterested general public for that. After all, Adobe invented PDF back in 1993 and has developed, maintained and distributed the free Adobe Reader and paid Adobe Acrobat software ever since.

However, I'm often speaking with IT executives, CIOs, directors and other technical policy managers in very large corporations and agencies. The subject is generally a mission-critical business-process or set of project requirements. The background and nature of the technologies in question matter - and organizations benefit to the extent that people who need to know are properly informed of the facts so they can make informed decisions.

Most know their subjects, and are serving their organizations well. Sometimes, though, I have to counter gross misinformation passed as wisdom.

I'm not (just) an industry executive with an attitude. I'm also vice-chair of the US Committee for ISO 32000 and a US delegate to the International Committee that manages the PDF format.

Here are those facts. Please... disseminate, copy, email, distribute, blog, tweet, fax, deliver and otherwise present this information to anyone who still thinks that PDF is proprietary!

Facts about PDF

  • PDF is a type of electronic document.
  • PDF stands for Portable Document Format.
  • PDF isn't the only final-form electronic document technology, but as of this writing, it's far-and-away the most dominant.
  • PDF is fairly identified with Adobe Systems; Adobe invented PDF in the early 1990s.
  • PDF is commonly viewed and printed with Adobe's Reader, the first free PDF viewing and printing software.
  • The document that defines the PDF format in technical terms is known as the PDF Reference (now ISO 32000).
  • The PDF Reference has been published and available since 1993.
  • Anyone may create applications that can read and write PDF files without having to pay royalties to Adobe Systems
  • In 2007, under the auspices of AIIM, Adobe Systems began the ISO "Fast Track" process to hand control of the PDF format to the international community.
  • On July 1, 2008, version 1.7 of the PDF Reference became ISO 32000, an International Standard.
  • ISO 32000 is managed by industry representatives and others in open meetings under parliamentary rules. Anyone can observe and participate.
  • Adobe does not dominate ISO 32000. They have one vote on the Committee, just like every other voting member, and they do not always get what they want (trust me on that).
  • Adobe is not the only provider of PDF creation, manipulation or viewing software, there are many others, and more every year. (see my review of free PDF viewers)
  • Extrapolating from some simple examples, it's reasonable to suppose that tens of billions of PDF files exist today, with billions more created each year. A significant fraction of all the hard-drives on planet Earth are occupied with PDF files, perhaps more than any other document file-format.
  • The very first PDF file was an IRS form 1040. Joy.
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