PDF In-Depth

PDF: better than paper

April 19, 1999


Planet PDF were lucky enough to speak with Tony McKinley, author of From Paper to Web, Instant Access columnist at Adobe and Director of Professional Services Group for Innodata Corp.

Planet PDF: Is Adobe PDF becoming as widely accepted as you claimed it would be in your '97 book 'From Paper to Web'?

Tony McKinley: Yes.

Planet PDF: What is the most annoying shortcoming of PDF?

Tony McKinley: I know this will make me sound like a rah-rah, but the most annoying shortcoming of PDF for me has nothing to do with Adobe. From my angle, delivering electronic documents over the Web is the key functionality of Acrobat and PDF.

I believe our overarching goal is to be BETTER THAN PAPER, not just smaller and able to be shipped over the wires. The reason I like PDF is that it can deliver information as dense or denser than our familiar paper documents. Compared to PDF, HTML does not come close to approximating the look and feel of paper info vessels.

However, to achieve this info density, PDF files can be fairly weighty. In the old days, prior to Acrobat 3, an entire document had to be downloaded to view any page within it. This was just another example of how the WWW seemed like the World Wide Wait.

However, with the introduction of linearization, or optimization, PDF files can be byteserved. This means that a 20 or 200 or 2,000 page document can be "opened' and downloaded at any page. The payoff of this feature is that authors can create rich, comprehensive PDF documents, and readers can "read" the books a page at a time over the Web.

This is infinitely more suitable for the Web, and vastly more satisfying for the user who has come to expect HTML-like responsiveness in documents. This page-at-a-time downloading feature has worked perfectly through the last few versions of Netscape Navigator, but it still doesn't work under MS Internet Explorer.

I hate to mention this because of the political implications, but it's a simple statement of the facts. It has such a big impact on users, I just wish that byteserving worked as easily across both of the popular Web browsers. Until they both perform equally, I can only advise serious PDF users to stick with Netscape.

Planet PDF: Given the fact that all the leading vendors in Document Management, Information Retrieval, Workflow and Collaboration software have agreed upon PDF as the de facto "standard document" - why did they do that?

Tony McKinley: For the whole e-doc paradigm to be a success in the real world, it's critically important that it be easy for regular people to work with the new electronic documents, such as PDF. Adobe Acrobat is a visionary approach to easy electronic document functionality, and the Acrobat Reader is the leading model of a digital reading interface, uniquely comparable to books and other traditional references.

With the Page Turner, Scroll Bars, Go To Page features, plus the Thumbnails, Bookmarks and Links, Acrobat provides a far more effective means of navigating complex documents, fulfilling our goal of being Better Than Paper.

Planet PDF: In your "Instant Access to Information" frame of reference, what do you see as the most exciting new features in Acrobat 4?

Tony McKinley: For me, the emergence of highly dynamic functionality is the big new feature. While the architecture and vision remain unchanged, Acrobat 4 transforms PDF from a 'reference' document to a highly interactive communications platform.

Version 4 is rolling out several sets of Tools that bring out the dynamic nature of PDF, matching the various markups and notes that can be attached to paper, and also matching the type of ad hoc functionality normally found only in six-figure Enterprise and Intranet Collaboration systems.

People have a natural expectation that electronic documents should be editable and changeable. Prior to Acrobat 4, these capabilities were primitive in PDF. But now the PDF document has become a dynamic medium that can support Collaboration, Workflow and other highly interactive projects.

Planet PDF: How exactly does Acrobat 4 achieve this new level of functionality?

Tony McKinley: Acrobat 4 is much more open on both ends, PDF Creation or Import, and Extract or Exporting from PDF. New Drag-n-Drop features let you instantly create a PDF by dropping a file on the Acrobat Icon, and even my non-computerized Mom can do that!

New Text Extraction features let you easily pull complex tables out of PDF and pop them up in a spreadsheet with structure intact. These are just a couple of examples that show this new in/out flexibility, what the Adobe guys refer to as "round-tripping", or what I like to think of as the new dynamic nature of PDF.

To get into exactly how it does this, and how it's useful, would take a few paths. The ability to Collaborate on par with the world's best solutions from top vendors, can be accomplished in Annotations by sharing Note Types and Colors.

These annotations can then be Sorted by Author, Type, Date, etc. and the resulting lists serve as hyperlinks to meander through a long and complex interactive conversation. The fact that all of this functionality is BUILT INTO THE DOCUMENT ARCHITECTURE is incredible. The DOCUMENT itself can independently maintain a dynamic, shared collaboration environment. That's one example.

Even the basic issues have been transformed dramatically. External application files such as spreadsheets can be embedded within PDF now, enjoying all the Security and universal portability that the Adobe vehicle offers.

Artists can now edit the graphic Objects within PDF documents. In Windows, a simple Control/DblClick with the mouse on an image will fire up Photoshop or Illustrator for professional editing and enhancement. When art touches have been added, a simple "Save" pops the image right back into the PDF. These are other examples of the new PDF, the dynamic approach to the good old PDF architecture.

In future articles, I'd like to discuss examples in which the PDF Architecture is fully exploited - such as the US FDA Guidelines on Electronic Submissions for New Drug Applications. That's a perfect example of simply using the available features and creating a very robust document management scheme that is designed for the NDA Reviewers to be able to easily and efficiently peruse very large amounts of information.

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