PDF In-Depth

The content that endures: What to know about PDF/A

About the Author
Duff Johnson picture

Duff Johnson

Since 2011, Duff has worked in the ECM industry specializing in PDF technology since 1995. An industry leader, Duff co-chairs the international committee that manages ISO 32000, the specification for the PDF file format. Responsible for marketing and product...  More



What's the difference between a document and the software used to view the document?

In the paper or microfiche worlds, no software is needed, so the question is meaningless. The only potential barrier to legibility is the physical condition of the document.

Electronic documents are different. The physical condition of the document is assumed, otherwise software can't even begin to do its thing. Understanding precisely how to display and print that document, however, can be somewhat more complicated.

What happens in the year 2023, when someone has to open an Outlook PST file from 2003 to settle a lawsuit? For those to whom such questions matter, no-one wants to consign their precious electronic documents to proprietary software, or the fortunes of one company.

First released by Adobe Systems in 1993, PDF became de facto "electronic paper" during the late 90s. At 15, PDF still isn't old enough to vote. In 10, 15, or 30 years, who knows what software will be used to view today's documents? This is why PDF/A, an open international standard for archiving PDFs, is so important.

Ralph Cafiero, CVISION Technologies COO, thinks this is something that most corporate leaders don't usually think about -- and yet when they do, they sit up straight. "They realize that when the software of the day fails to open the files they saved so carefully 15 years ago, they could be in a lot more trouble than they'd ever imagined," Ralph says. In Europe, they are already figuring this out, as we'll see.

PDF is an inherently flexible format, and can contain far more sophisticated content compared with images, fiche or tagged-text. Even so, the rules for creating PDF used to be (and to an extent, remain) loose, allowing lazy, sloppy or simply careless developers to make poorly-constructed and even broken PDFs that Adobe nonetheless feels compelled to attempt to open with their Reader. Some users complain that Reader is "bloated", and compared to many alternatives, it is. That said, unlike most alternatives, Adobe Reader will open almost any bundle of bytes that claims to be a PDF file.

Quite apart from such "difficult" PDFs, the power and flexibility of the format presents another challenge for archival purposes; the possibility of content contained within a PDF that viewing software can't render.

When created by quality software, PDF is already far more reliable for archival purposes than Word, Excel or Outlook. PDF/A, the Archive standard for PDF, is a core subset of the larger PDF Specification. PDF/A is designed specifically to address the concerns of organizations with electronic document retention policies. Launched by AIIM and NPES in 2001, the PDF/A standard was first published as ISO 19005-1 in October, 2005.

"By stipulating not only a file format but also viewer requirements (above and beyond those in PDF Reference) -- PDF/A gives you both pieces of the puzzle." says Leonard Rosenthol, Adobe's PDF Standards Evangelist.

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