PDF In-Depth

PDF Master: Duff Johnson

October 20, 2014


In order to commemorate more than 20 years of PDF, we here at Planet PDF have conducted a new series of interviews with current PDF Masters, movers and shakers in the PDF universe. The capacity of the PDF format has grown exponentially since its original release. The immense scope of available PDF functionality is now such that it has necessitated the development of formal standards to govern how and when particular features should be used.

Our current PDF Master is no stranger to PDF standards. Indeed, he was responsible for driving development of PDF/UA (PDF/Universal Accessibility), and from 2005 onward, has chaired the committee that wrote that standard, formally known as ISO 14289. Since 2011, Duff has also served as international Project Leader for ISO 32000, the PDF specification. He has been Vice Chairman, and is now Executive Director of the PDF Association, and both sits on AIIM's Board of Directors and serves as its Standards Committee chairman.

Duff has almost two decades of experience with PDF, acting variously as a business leader, tech analyst, strategist, evangelist, educator and advisor to software vendors, publishers, businesses, government agencies and investors.

It all began in 1996 when he founded an imaging service bureau dedicated to PDF technology, Document Solutions, Inc. Over time, his company added increasingly valuable services, including disc and web-based interactive content projects, workflow application development and accessibility services. His experience with these last would become a cornerstone of Duff's later work with PDF standards, and particularly accessible PDF (PDF/UA).

In 2008, Duff merged his company with Appligent, an enterprise software developer, and successfully led the combined organization through the global economic downturn. Duff left Appligent Document Solutions in 2011 to become President of NetCentric Technologies, where he refocused and rebranded the company and overhauled its marketing efforts.

Today, Duff sits near the centre of the PDF universe, leading the team responsible for developing and maintaining the PDF specification itself. Further, he shares the benefit of his impressive expertise through his work as an independent consultant, working with both vendors and users of electronic document technologies.

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

DUFF JOHNSON: Having worked in political opposition research in the early 1990s I loved the idea of bringing all the research together into a single format that retained the original document's authenticity and could be easily searched and distributed. PDF was perfect.

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

JOHNSON: I use PDF just like any other person who writes, edits and juggles a lot of documents. I don't do anything special with PDF files per se. I guess the main thing I'm doing with PDF right now is editing PDF 2.0, the next-generation specification for the Portable Document Format.

PLANET PDF: What's your next PDF project (as much as you *can* say, at least)?

JOHNSON: I'm hoping to lead a project to develop a canonical open-source PDF/A validator.

PLANET PDF: Briefly describe the most significant change in the evolution or use of the technology since you first began working with PDF, and why do you consider it significant?

JOHNSON: I saw my first PDF in 1995, and started focusing on the technology in 1996. At that time there were relatively few options for manipulating PDF files apart from Adobe's products, and certainly, no commonplace PDF viewer apart from Adobe's.

Since 1996, the ecosystem of PDF technology vendors, from desktop to server, has expanded dramatically. Apple products include a built-in PDF viewer; many Mac and iOS users never think of any alternative. Popular browsers such as Chrome and Firefox now include their own integrated PDF viewers.

Once upon a time, Adobe's PDF icon (which is actually an Acrobat product icon) was the key indication to end users that the computer was able to cope with PDF files. Today we find a blizzard of icons on websites, SharePoint, installed by non-Adobe desktop software, and more. I'm not sure that's a good thing for a technology whose primary value-proposition is consistency irrespective of platform.

So I guess the big change, from my perspective, is a function of PDF's dominance in the fixed-format electronic document world. There are lots of options for PDF creation, viewing and manipulation where there used to be very few. This is part of what's made PDF the globally-accepted format that it is today, but it's also introduced some problems.

PLANET PDF: With Creative Cloud, Adobe is shifting towards more of a focus on a subscription-based model. What impact do you think this will have on the world of PDF, both from a developer/solutions provider standpoint and user perspective?

JOHNSON: I doubt this will affect PDF per se. What it means for Adobe's business is another matter -- it will probably be positive in the long-term. Some end users may view this as a reason to go elsewhere for their software, but it's hard to say either way.

PLANET PDF: Pondering the future of PDF, what most excites you about the next few years?

JOHNSON: Speaking personally, I'm quite busy editing PDF 2.0 (formally known as ISO 32000-2), the first post-Adobe specification for our beloved format. The fact that such a powerful technology is now entirely open and democratically managed is slowly seeping into the brains of product managers around the world. There are many areas in document and web-content management that still rely on bitmap formats such as TIFF! I expect PDF to replace such limited technologies over the next few years.

I think we'll see the expansion of PDF adoption continue unabated. The platform PDF provides for exciting functionality with digital signatures, 3D content, rich media, geospatial data and other powerful features will translate into substantial business opportunities for more and more businesses worldwide.

PLANET PDF: Briefly describe a common misconception about or frequent problem you've seen with PDF that you'd like to try to clarify for others and/or provide a tip to address.

JOHNSON: The single most common misconception is the assumption that PDF files can't be changed. Of course, like any other unsecured file, PDF files can be changed -- just not with typical free viewing software.

PLANET PDF: What are your favorite PDF tools, applications, SDKs or services and why?

JOHNSON: Apart from the typical tasks any author or editor performs I'm not doing lots of heavy work on PDF files any more -- those days are mostly behind me! As I use a Mac my software choices are somewhat limited in any event. Adobe's Acrobat Professional remains my core PDF application, but I prefer Apple's Preview for some purposes, much as I like to complain about how poorly Apple deals with PDF.

PLANET PDF: How has working with PDF changed since the formal recognition of the various PDF standards?

JOHNSON: Adoption of ISO standards is a long, slow process, but one of the key effects of standardization has been improved quality in mainstream PDF software. Many applications that create or edit PDF files do a far better job than they did 10 or 12 years ago.

PLANET PDF: How has the proliferation of relatively powerful mobile devices and widespread data access changed the way people work with PDF?

JOHNSON: The days when a 12 MB product manual was a significant download, or mobile screens were too small to give a reasonable experience, or mobile software was incapable of useful functions such as annotating PDF pages, are over. Predictions of an HTML-only world in which content shapes itself to the device have turned out to be inaccurate. Obviously, adaptive content is vital in many applications, but people still like the work that graphic designers do to present, organize and emphasize.

PLANET PDF: What impact has the rise of mobile/portable had for those providing PDF-based solutions?

JOHNSON: As the mobile world has re-prioritized smaller software packages and runs on new operating systems the twin challenges of variegated support for PDF features and low-quality PDF is rising again. Plenty of mobile software applications cannot leverage increasingly common power-features of the format. Some mobile applications can make PDF files, but quality can be very poor. And of course, not all PDF files are made well enough to work on less capable mobile software.

PLANET PDF: Where do you see the most important functional gap in what's out there? Tell me about your dream PDF tool, SDK or whatever. Why do you think it doesn't exist yet?

JOHNSON: The world still lacks a concept of valid PDF. Today, unfortunately, the ultimate arbiter of PDF quality remains Adobe Reader. That's just not OK. The fact that the industry as a whole has yet to agree on an independent canonical (accepted industry-wide) means of validation for this critical document format is a weakness that must be overcome if PDF is to live forever.

PLANET PDF: How has your perspective changed since you started working with PDF 18 years ago?

JOHNSON: The first PDF file I ever saw was a scanned page that had been OCRed with Adobe's Acrobat Capture 1.01. The PDF included both the original scanned page and searchable text. You could select a word and a highlight would show on the image. I was blown away. I knew right away that this technology could bridge the gap between paper and digital domains.

I'm not a software developer; I've always been an end user. Even so, today I'm now ISO's Project Leader for the specification, co-managing (with Cherie Ekholm of Microsoft) PDF's development from version 1.7 to 2.0; the first step without Adobe Systems holding the reins.

From thinking about my own PDF file I now have to think about the entire industry. It certainly feels like a change in perspective!

PLANET PDF: Is there anything important you didn't feel that we covered? Please tell me and our readers about it!

JOHNSON: You didn't ask me about my favorite PDF feature!

It would have to be the fundamentally self-contained, cross-platform nature of the technology; PDF works anywhere. That's one of the key reasons it will live forever. In the year 2514, with human-intelligence AIs running on quantum computers, people will still need to share and use precisely laid-out content with total confidence that every reader (human or AI) will get the same thing. They'll be using PDF.

PLANET PDF: Thanks for your time!

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