PDF In-Depth

Pondering Acrobat's Future

October 03, 2000


One subject that I think is extremely important yet has received little discussion (outside of Adobe) is the future role of PDF, which is essentially a static format, in an online world that is increasingly dynamic and animation-oriented. This is something that should concern all of us, since it's by no means clear that PDF will be able to keep pace with user expectations for online content in a broadband world.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that PDF is static, whereas the world of the web is dynamic. An editorial in the April issue of Publish magazine, on page 16, carries the curious title "Beyond Photoshop." In it, the author (a web architect) argues that the world's greatest image-editing program is, in fact, now obsolete since, by and large, it doesn't allow creation or editing of dynamic content.

"The Web is a multimedia environment," Clay Andres notes, "and Photoshop is not a multimedia tool." Rather, he says, it is "a tool for the static parts of a very dynamic world."

In an earlier issue, the president of Macromedia was interviewed, and he quite perceptively (if predictably) noted that Adobe is the preeminent purveyor of software tools for the creation and management of content that doesn't move.

Such a left-handed compliment is all the more stinging when, as in this case, it has the unmistakable ring of truth. Obviously you expect such a comment from the head of the company that sells Flash and Shockwave. But the criticism is well-taken. Adobe products ARE famous for creating things that don't move. By and large.

Acrobat is fast becoming Adobe's most visible product that creates things that don't move. The question is: To what extent should this bother us? And to what extent will Adobe act to change things?

Repurposing Adobe

Adobe top management is committed to changing Adobe's reputation as a "static-media" megalith. For example, word has come down from the top that all Adobe products are to incorporate support for SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics, the new open format for web-ready animated vector graphics), beginning with the next major version release of most of Adobe's flagship products. Adobe Illustrator 9.0 and GoLive 5.0 will be the first SVG-savvy commercial releases for the company. LiveMotion (Adobe's Flash generator) will also output SVG when it goes golden.

I've heard it said that Acrobat will also support SVG Real Soon Now, but to what extent is not clear. Obviously, the easy thing to do would be to give Acrobat an SVG import filter so that static SVG imagery can be imported into PDF docs. This should be very easy to do since SVG uses vector-graphics primitives that are not far removed from Postscript's. Mapping SVG into PDF page operators should be straightforward.

The problem area is animation. SVG is not a static format. It incorporates support not only for JavaScript control of SVG elements but also direct syntax for implementing animation. Animation support is an integral part of SVG, in other words. But there is no support for Flash-like animation in PDF. Yet.

"But how important is it, really, to have animated page elements in a PDF file?" you may be asking. I agree that it's an open question. The answer will be provided by end users. To the degree that the web becomes shaped by animation, PDF will be left out unless it can incorporate the necessary feature set. Things like flashing banner ads may seem annoying and trivial, but much of the web's growth has been driven by the income produced by bannner ads. Has the fact that PDF can't display animated GIF files hurt PDF's online acceptance? You be the judge.

Where Things Are Headed

I don't think it's any secret where the web is headed. For better or worse, broadband is the future. And that means information encoding will expand to fill the bandwidth available, whether that's really necessary or not. In other words, gratuitous bandwidth-wasting animation (of which Flash is only the tip of the iceberg, today) will become an integral part of nearly every kind of web content. More than that, it will become expected by users. In the same way raytraced 3D logos killed the NBC peacock, Flash and its descendants will kill 2D Photoshop graphics and make old-fashioned "static PDF" files look antiquated.

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