PDF In-Depth

PDF Master: Enigmatic forum sage reveals secret origins...

June 01, 2004

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DAN SHEA: Planet PDF readers will probably know you best from your tireless work assisting the needy by posting answers in the Planet PDF Forum. Can you please tell us something they might not know about you?

DOUG ALFORD: On April 19, 1965, (ironically, the same day that Olympic horse-vaulter Melita Rühn was born) I appeared in the center of a crop circle in a soybean field in Ohio. I was taken in by a kindly couple who raised and fed me until I was old enough to go out into the world and mess up things on my own. I earned a BA in English from the Ohio State University and put it to use by publishing one short story in The Mythic Circle, for which I was paid one contributor's copy. With three children to support, I quickly did the math and abandoned creative artistry for technical writing, which I have been doing ever since.

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

ALFORD: The company I contract with, Techneglas, Inc., was working on achieving ISO 9000 certification, which involves a lot of documentation. They had made the decision to go with PDF as opposed to HTML, and when I walked in the door they handed me a copy of Acrobat 3 and told me to get busy learning it. That was in 1998, and everyone here referred to it as "Acrobat Writer".

Five years and three versions later I am in charge of the documentation system, which I continually reinvent and reshape for the purpose of improvement. Sometimes people get irritated by the changes, but once they get over the initial resistance they usually admit that it's better.

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

ALFORD: In the context of these interviews, you can look at me as a representative of the common person. I am a consumer and a day-to-day user of Acrobat, PDF, and ARTS PDF plug-ins. I have nothing to sell...yet. So I have the freedom to criticize when it's time to be a critic, and lead cheers when it's time to be a cheerleader.

Recently I changed the navigational system from a set of PDF menus (stand-alone document lists with links) to a browser/Java/frames setup. I was inspired to do this by the convenience of the bookmarks pane in Acrobat. Same sort of thing, but done with multiple PDFs and a Java menu in a browser frame. And not to worry...I have not lost appreciation for this thing called PDF. Those documents sit nice and pretty in the other frame.

And of course we are still using PDF forms for online filling, not to mention the administrative forms I have built that interact with a SQL database. All good clean fun!

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

ALFORD: For me, the JavaScript interface is the most significant development. When you compare the objects/methods/properties available in Acrobat 4 (when I started learning JS) to those available in 6 it's quite breathtaking. By exposing more and more of the API to scripters, Adobe has made a first-class development tool out of Acrobat.

I also think the guy on the box and the splash screen has improved his style, but he could still use a little tailoring on those pants. I mean, the David Byrne thing went out with the 80's. Come on!

SHEA: Tell me, what is it about PDF that makes it useful to so many different people?

ALFORD: What is it about books that make them so useful to so many different people? Whatever that thing is, it applies to PDF as well.

PDF is a static design format. As the designer of the document, you always have control over the presentation. That control is essential to conveying the information and the message you are trying to convey. You can't do that with dynamic formats.

Can you imagine Michelangelo's David with adjustable GI Joe-style arms and legs? Can you imagine e.e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town" with indefinite line endings? Can you imagine john Lennon's "Imagine" played at varying speeds? (Well, OK. It might work for some of Yoko's songs, but that's different.)

SHEA: What's your next PDF project?

ALFORD: I have a lot of PDF files sitting around on my pc in a folder called "PDF Experiments". These are files I created while trying to work out the answers to questions posed by JavaScript learners in the PPDF Forum. Right now they're just taking up space, but with a little work I might be able to provide them as a resource for people. I am in the process now of finding a web host for a site devoted to PDF JavaScript and other things dug. This might also be a good place to host a JS FAQ and/or something like the "AcroJS Fantasy Tutorial" that Don Story proposed a couple years ago...

Could be the next big thing on the internet! Anyone willing to venture a little capital? I hear the internet is a pretty good investment...um...what's that?...oh. Guess I ought to read the Wall Street Journal every couple of years or so.

SHEA: Acrobat and PDF are now used in so many industries and in so many ways; do you see new areas that perhaps haven't yet been tapped? Where do you see the greatest potential for growth?

ALFORD: Electronic books.

I mean a device that is about the size of a book, with easy page turning buttons and a display that doesn't give you a headache like a computer screen does. (I've heard it called 'staring at a light bulb'.) It would need to be devoted solely to reading e-books. No extra features to confuse anyone over 40. And it would need to cost about 25 dollars at the most. People would have to feel comfortable reading it in bed or in a doctor's office. Add to this a convenient and cheap source of reading material and a good marketing plan, and you could win the dollars and hearts of everyday readers.

Also, we should be looking at eliminating paper from shop floors and boardrooms. Imagine a meeting where everyone pulls out their e-book reader and plugs in a RAM card being passed around with agendas and handouts. Add note-taking capability, and you've successfully replaced paper in the boardroom. Imagine a technician on the shop floor, ticking off items on her preventive maintenance checklist, which will automatically be stored on a RAM card, which will then be handed to a clerk for entry into the database-driven records system.

All of this, of course, powered by PDF.

SHEA: What do you see in the future of PDF?

ALFORD: I agree with Alan Kay. "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Anything else is just speculation, which makes a lot of casino owners very rich.

What should be invented? See my previous answer for the first idea.

How about a PDF-friendly web browser? It seems to me that a browser specifically designed to work with PDFs on the web and elsewhere would be a nice replacement for the Reader. Mozilla source is free -- surely there are a few adventurous programmers out there to take on the project?

SHEA: What can Adobe change in the next version of Acrobat to make it better?

ALFORD: What about:

  • Continue to open up the API to JavaScript! More of the same will be good!
  • Put the JS documentation back on the HELP menu.
  • Allow for recordable macros.
  • Put some major effort into designing an intuitive, logically simple menu system.
  • Improve the search function in the HELP window.

SHEA: Can Acrobat and PDF be all things to all people?

ALFORD: Absolutely. Yes. And dogs can be cats, and shovels can be hammers. No doubt about it.

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

ALFORD: The most troubling misconception I've seen has come not from neophytes but from the wizened wizards of PDF. Sometimes the wizards don't trust the young apprentices to make their own decisions. That's not a phenomena specific to the PDF world, by the way. It's universal.

Here's my tip of the day. Do you want to hide the Save a Copy button in Reader? The name of the button is "SaveFileAs". Enjoy. I believe in you. Now go cause trouble.

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