PDF In-Depth

Acrobat Reader dysfunctionality

October 06, 1999

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A recent headline stated that distribution of the free Adobe Acrobat Reader has now exceeded 100 million copies worldwide. Ok, so I'm impressed. Acrobat Reader remains (by a very wide margin) the most popular PDF viewer. It's an industrial strength application that works extremely well and is user friendly. It's also one of the easiest computer applications there is to get your hands on. It's distributed freely on countless CD roms and websites.

Note: Because Adobe has decided to make the inner workings of PDF available to the public, it is possible for anyone to develop and sell (or give away) PDF viewers with any amount of functionality.

Acrobat Reader offers computer users everything needed to view, print, and use PDF files...well almost. Make no mistake about it, Acrobat Reader is the property of Adobe, Inc. Yes, Adobe does give it away freely to anyone who wants it, but as the license agreement indicates, Adobe does limit the use of the free Reader in some situations.

What's missing?

Perhaps the most obvious limitation is Reader's inability to save modifications to a PDF file. Some people wrongly assume that Reader is broken or didn't install properly when they notice the Save command is missing. Rest assured, there is nothing wrong with Reader, as this is the way it's supposed to be. This in essence is the only real limitation that Reader has. There are several other things that Reader cannot do (and I'll cover them shortly) but these are mainly side effects of the missing Save command.

In conjunction with the missing Save command, Adobe has worded the Reader license agreement in a way that prevents anyone (mainly computer programmers) from adding a Save command to Reader. There are also restrictions on adding a Save command through plugins that can be developed for Reader. As you can see, the Save command is the focal point of Reader's limitations.

Some people feel frustrated by this and claim that Adobe is trying to force people to buy the full commercial version of Acrobat (which has a Save enabled PDF viewer/editor). This is partially true. Consider for a moment such products as Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint. Microsoft offers a free Word document viewer, and guess what? It doesn't have a Save command. PowerPoint has a freely distributable slide show viewer, and it doesn't have a Save command either. There are many other examples that could be used, but the point is, these free viewers are part of the overall marketing scheme for the commercial products they work in conjunction with. This is a technique used by many companies.

You would do the same

So put yourself in Adobe's place for a moment and ask yourself, if the free Acrobat Reader had a Save command, would people go out and purchase the commercial version of Acrobat? This is a business decision that users of the free Acrobat Reader must live with. That is part of the philosophy behind many free viewers.

So where does all this leave users of the free Acrobat Reader? The answer to this question will depend on your situation and how you use PDF files. Although I cannot possibly cover every situation where Reader is limited, here is a list the most common ones.

  • Bookmarks cannot be created with Reader. To do so would require a Save command in order to save the bookmarks.
  • Thumbnails cannot be created with Reader, for the same reason as bookmarks.
  • Annotations cannot be created with Reader, for the same reason as above.
  • Text editing of any kind cannot be done with Reader. Why edit text if you can't save your edits?
  • FDF (forms data files) cannot be exported by Reader. Exporting requires that you create and save a new FDF file. However, the Reader plugin for web browsers can still use PDF forms online and submit FDF to a web server which is running the commercial version of Acrobat or another application that can do the required processing.
  • PDF templates do not work with Reader. Templates in effect can create new PDF pages or entire documents as well as make modifications to existing pages, all of which need to be saved. Because templates can rely on Javascript, some Javascript also doesn't work with Reader.

In these last two cases a web server can do the necessary processing, deliver the new or modified PDF document to the Reader plugin running within a web browser, and this PDF file can in turn be saved locally as any other downloaded file would be through your web browser's Save command.

As you can see, PDF forms do add another element to Reader but mainly as a data input tool. The data handling, saving and processing must be done by a webserver instead of Reader.

The name tells all

Acrobat Reader's name is very fitting. It is indeed only a reader.

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