Planet PDF's Weblog
A daily chronicle of Acrobat/PDF-oriented newsbits

For week beginning 17 June 02
By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor

Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday


NOTE: Previous Weblogs will be archived at the end of each week, and start fresh here.

MONDAY

Oxymoron No More: Not that many years ago, Seybold Seminars took measure of the various sub-themes within its premiere publishing industry event, looking for indicators on future directions to evolve its popular conference. The packed sessions for its special, day-long "PDF Day" program -- "Our most-successful one-day seminar," according to Seybold's Thad McIlroy in 2000 -- clearly indicated growth potential. Not surprisingly, Seybold soon offered an expanded -- if not oxymoronic -- two-day "PDF Day" program for both its east and west coast venues. On a practical note, the single-day program was split, resulting in separate, full-day programs focused respectively on PDF Day for Print and PDF Day for Electronic Publishing.

Early this year the Seybold conference organizers retired the two seemingly self-contradictory "PDF Day" days, replacing them with a new, all-encompassing, two-day event: the Seybold PDF Conference. After a shorter than usual planning cycle, the re-vamped, PDF-centric program premiered in New York's Javits Center in February.

"No matter how much PDF we offer," said Craig Cline, Seybold Seminars' VP of Content, introducing 'version 1.0' of the Seybold PDF Conference in February, "people always tell us they want more."

Seybold SF 2002

OK, how about THREE days focused on Acrobat and PDF? Done! From September 10-12, a further upgraded and expanded incarnation of the Seybold PDF Conference moves to the Moscone Center in San Francisco. We've now posted the schedule of events, along with a First Call for potential speakers -- including developers interested in showcasing their wares at the popular "Seven Minutes with a PDF Developer" session. Many of the speaker presentations from the New York conference are available for download from Planet PDF, an event co-sponsor.

The results of an extensive survey on PDF usage being conducted by Seybold PDF Conference co-chairs Hans Hartman and John Parsons will be presented during the conference's opening PDF Summit -- note that Seybold posted the survey today -- in both a PDF and an HTML version -- which will remain online for about a month. More on this major industry event in the months ahead.


   

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TUESDAY

Electronic Paper Cuts: In his "Camelot" white paper issued in 1991, former Adobe CEO and co-founder John Warnock laid out his vision for what was to become the portable document format (PDF), detailing both the technical aspects and the solutions it offered in ushering an era of communication via electronic documents. Warnock wrote:

"The problem is concerned with our ability to communicate visual material between different computer applications and systems. The specific problem is that most programs print to a wide range of printers, but there is no universal way to communicate and view this printed information electronically. The popularity of FAX machines has given us a way to send images around to produce remote paper, but the lack of quality, the high communication bandwidth and the device specific nature of FAX has made the solution less than desirable. What industries badly need is a universal way to communicate documents across a wide variety of machine configurations, operating systems and communication networks. These documents should be viewable on any display and should be printable on any modern printers. If this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change."

Almost 10 years since Adobe and Warnock publicly launched Acrobat 1.0 and PDF, some folks still insist on doing things the old-fashioned way. Roger Harris, a newspaper columnist with the Ventura County Star in southern California, is by his own public admission among them. In a recent column, Harris wrote:

Lakers PDF
"I need paper. The Star doesn't want me to take my iMac home, so when I need to do some weekend reading I make printed copies of interview notes and other info. On occasion, I print reports I find on the Web so I can read them here at the office. I could read them on the computer screen, but it drives me absolutely nuts to scroll through a 40-page PDF file. Gives me a headache. I would much rather risk a paper cut thumbing through pages."

It'd be easy to dismiss Harris' lament as that of an Acro-phobe; after all, if you consider Warnock's original premise for PDF, the goal *was* to make printed copies -- locally, as needed. But that misunderstanding aside, let's also consider Harris' current preference, at a time when PDF is considerably more accepted as an alternative Web format, useful for more than printing. I can relate to his ink-on-paper mindset. In fact, up until two or three years ago, I might have made much the same statement -- on-screen reading (of anything lengthy) was at best a second option. I had stacks of yellowing paper as testament to that practiced belief.

I've been known in the past to drain a fresh toner cartridge in an afternoon, or to ink-stain the equivalent of a small oak. My Planet PDF colleague Karl De Abrew, on the other hand, is a devout (fanatical!) believer in unplugging the Melbourne, Australia office printer unless absolutely necessary to commit something to papyrus -- still a rare occasion in the Planet PDF home office. So I made the commitment to give the no-print lifestyle a go at my US-based home office, not really expecting I'd be able to handle the withdrawal symptoms.

Truth be told now, the conversion was much easier than I expected. I've had the same dozen sheets of paper in the paper tray for several months now -- easy to do when no computer is currently hooked to it. The last time I opened a fresh ream of paper was sometime last year. Results: No piles of paper to sort and file (or lose), no emergency trips for a late-night toner fix and no paper jams!

Frankly, I have a difficult time imagining that browsing a 40-page PDF sends Harris reaching for the aspirin. Even if true, is that the fault of the format -- or of the document creator and/or the end user? PDFs offer multiple means of navigation -- bookmarks, article threads, thumbnails, and internal and external hyperlinks, to name a few. There's also the ability to add annotations, highlighting, etc. And then there's the built-in Search capability.

One point on which most of us can empathize somewhat with Harris -- there are a lot of improperly (or inadequately) created PDF files littered across the Net. The available navigational features that could alleviate Harris' need for medical attention could very often be integrated at the authoring stage, with little extra effort required on the part of the document creator. Eventually the onus falls to the end user to take advantage of these features when they *are* available. Browsing a 40-page PDF shouldn't -- and doesn't need to -- induce a migraine. (Devil's Advocate: Wouldn't a 40-page HTML version produce the same results?)

In the end, we're all entitled to our pet peeves. Here's one of mine: A Web site you visit describes a PDF document next to an active hyperlink, but when you click expecting to initiate the download, you soon discover it's not a direct link to a PDF. And sometimes when you follow the link one more step, you still can't find the PDF you thought was available.

Lakers PDF

An example: A newspaper Web site announces the availability of a special section featuring its extended coverage of the recent Los Angeles Lakers pursuit and capture of the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship. "Download ... (the) special Lakers section in PDF format," the homepage said, adjacent to an active hyperlink titled "Special Section." Click -- but no PDF. OK, it's somewhere on this next page ... or is it? Never did find it. Finally sent an email to the newspaper staff asking where the PDF file is -- am still awaiting a response.

By the way, the newspaper offering this seemingly unattainable PDF special section is the same one for which Roger Harris works, writes and prints. I'm starting to understand some other possible causes of his head throbs, and/or perhaps his unfortunate aversion to PDFs.

UPDATE: Heard back from the newspaper, although not with anything definitive. In fact, the notion of PDF seems a bit unclear to them, based on their response. I was told:

"This is an advertiser-sponsored special section that our paper put together right after the (Los Angeles lakers) title victory. It is a PDF format and totally printable. There is no download button, it downloads when you open it and you can print the pages directly from that link."
Sorry, wrong answer! There is NOT a PDF file on this page.

So after a little self-sleuthing, the situation seems to be this: like a number of others, the newspaper uses Print2Web, LLC, a business that "specializes in the transformation of static pre-press files to dynamic and interactive website content." Print2Web takes a newspaper's (or magazine's) electronic pre-press files -- "preferably in PDF format at 300 d.p.i." -- and converts them into "enriched Web content." That's what the Ventura County Star has made available -- not the production PDF itself, which never works well on the Web, especially considering the typical tabloid newspaper format with multiple, narrow columns. And with the advertisements, newspaper pages as stand-alone PDFs can be hefty in file size. Print2Web, like several other companies offering similar services, help newspapers re-package that content -- complete with the ads. No PDFs to download (despite what the homepage and the support staff says).

And we sense that's just the way Roger Harris likes it.


   

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WEDNESDAY

Sklyarov doing TIME: We previewed the approaching 10th anniversary of Acrobat and PDF earlier in this week's Weblog, as well as in an article we re-published from Seybold Publications offering its 1993 analysis of the Adobe Systems' technologies.

There's another PDF-related anniversary on the horizon, noted this week in TIME Magazine's European edition for June 24, 2002. In "Home, but Not Home Free," the international news weekly relives the July 16, 2001 arrest of Russian software programmer Dmitry Sklyarov, an employee of ElcomSoft Co. Ltd. of Moscow. Alerted to Sklyarov's presence at a conference in Las Vegas by Adobe Systems anti-piracy team, the FBI took Sklyarov into custody on charges of violating the still-controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) -- for developing a software program that could decrypt Adobe PDF-based eBooks. Our Planet eBook sister site was the first to report the detention and arrest.

TIME rightly calls Sklyarov the "poster child" for the upcoming legal test case; his arrest inspired worldwide protests that caused even Adobe to do an about-face, publicly withdrawing its support for his prosecution. While the programmer was freed late last year in exchange for his testimony in the still-continuing criminal case being prosecuted by the U.S. Government, his employer faces potentially severe financial repercussions when the trial begins August 26. (TIME writes that Sklyarov agreed to testify against his own company; but as Planet PDF reported earlier, attorneys for both Sklyarov and ElcomSoft vigorously oppose that characterization.)

TIME's assessment: While Sklyarov's lawyers may have successfully bartered his freedom (from prosecution and from leaving the U.S.), it's unlikely ElcomSoft will be able to extricate itself from the legal ramifications that his arrest triggered. TIME says:

"ElcomSoft CEO Alex Katalov's gripe that the U.S. is applying the DMCA 'to the whole world' falls flat; the company sold its program in the U.S. So does an argument that the program helped users exercise fair-use rights by enabling them, for example, to make backup copies."
Further, TIME calls ElcomSoft's Advanced eBook Processor software, the development and sales of which is at the heart of the matter, a "tool for circumvention of copyright protection, and that makes it a DMCA dud."

The issues -- and the constitutionality of the DMCA -- are not as clear cut to many others, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), U. S. Rep. Rick Boucher, Stanford University Law Professor Lawrence Lessig and respected security expert Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security, all who have spoken out against the current DMCA and/or prosecution of this case. (Planet eBook and Planet PDF began tracking this story in late June 2001, and have developed a comprehensive index of news coverage that includes reports both favorable to and in opposition to ElcomSoft's prosecution.)

Based on comments cited in the monthly newsletter of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), even Adobe Systems CEO Bruce Chizen is less than enthusiastic about advocating for government intervention in fast-changing, high-tech matters. Speaking during the AAP's annual meeting, Chizen commented on the impact of software piracy on Adobe, but then "expressed his uncertainty, however, about the wisdom of having Congress legislative solutions to complex technological problems of digital rights management."

Recent writings of security expert Schneier, in particular, deserve close attention by anyone interested in the Acrobat/PDF security aspects of this case. So much in fact that we've re-published with permission two of his most relevant excerpts -- "Adobe, Elcomsoft and the DMCA" and "The Futility of Digital Copy Prevention" -- taken from a free monthly newsletter he publishes. Schneier writes in part:

"Welcome to 21st century America, where the profits of the major record labels, movie houses, and publishing companies are more important than First Amendment rights or nuclear weapons information."
In other words, the ElcomSoft case is much more than simply about (potentially) unlocking a few eBooks (which hasn't actually happened with the controversial ElcomSoft tool to date, as far as we know) or crippling financial damage caused to a still-fledgling industry. It's part of a bigger picture, Schneier suggests, related to the stories we're frequently reading now about entertainment companies developing newer and stronger methods for guarding against insidious, illegal consumer behaviors -- such as the legitimate owner of a music CD trying to play the same disc in both his/her car and computer, or hoping to transfer a legally purchased eBook from my desktop computer to my laptop. Yes, current laws and developing technologies seek to forbid these sinister (apparently because they generate less profit) activities. Are we customers or criminals first to these alleged guardians of rights?

From a purely American perspective, the ultimate irony in the ElcomSoft case is perhaps this: The Russian government issued a warning last year to its citizens -- particularly computer programmers and other tech experts -- about traveling to the U.S., a direct result of Sklyarov's controversial arrest, detention and subsequent indictment.

ElcomSoft may well lose its DMCA test case, as TIME predicts this week will happen. If so, will they be the *only* losers? Or are more of us on the verge of becoming a little more 'Home, but Not Home Free' as TIME suggests of Sklyarov and ElcomSoft?


  Time

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THURSDAY

Plain, harsh language on government forms: In an earlier Weblog entry, we highlighted a PDF-based version of "Rumsfeld's Rules," a collection of witticisms, proverbs, pet peeves and codes of conduct developed and preached by the current U.S. Secretary of Defense. Based on a news item widely reported this week, Donald Rumsfeld may want to add this new "rule" to his still-expanding set of personal commandments: 'No government forms with more pages of instructions than the actual form itself!'

The Associated Press (AP) reports that Rumsfeld's recently released financial disclosure statement shows he sold as much as $91 million of his stock and partnership shares last year to comply with government ethics requirements. Apparently riled by the experience, the known-to-be-feisty Cabinet head chronicled his frustrations in a letter to the government agency that oversees the 18-page "Standard Form (SF) 278 Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report". What set Rumsfeld off, however, was not the ethics requirement -- but rather the government form itself! According to the AP:

"Rumsfeld complained in a letter to the Office of Government Ethics that the disclosure form is 'excessively complex and confusing' and cost him more than $60,000 in accountants' fees to compile."
He also said he signed the disclosure forms "with a prayer and a hope" they were accurate, because he didn't have time to read every entry. "They're so complex that no human being, college educated or not, can understand them," Rumsfeld said, adding that "There is no doubt in my mind but that with effort, this document could be simplified down to less than one-third its length, and rewritten so it can be understood by the preparer as well as the reader."

Internet rumormonger Matt Drudge was quick to highlight Rumsfeld's whine about the confusing form instructions on his Drudge Report site, even adding a direct link to download a PDF version of the SF 278 form -- under a 'Hard to Understand?' heading. Presumably Drudge, never one to miss a chance to needle a government official, meant to imply the form was all but self-explanatory.

Drudge Report on Rumsfeld forms flap

A closer look, however, suggests there may be some merit to Rumsfeld's claims. The first 11 pages of the downloadable, 18-page PDF version of the form are merely instructions for filling out the form -- and there are additional instructions on parts of the actual form itself. It's most definitely not a result of the ongoing "plain language" efforts urging government agencies to simplify and clarify public documents.

Even OGE Director Amy L. Comstock seems to agree, responding by letter to Rumsfeld: "Quite frankly, I agree that the form itself is confusing," she said, adding that OGE plans to create a simpler version.

Disclosure Form

While Drudge implies that Rumsfeld (or his expensive forms preparers) downloaded a PDF version of the form in question, it's possible the Defense Secretary acquired a pre-printed version available from the Government Printing Office (GPO). Or rather than the static PDF form linked from the Drudge Report site, he might have chosen the electronically fillable PDF version (the fillable fields are shown with a yellow background) also available from the OGE site. Or he may have gone yet another route -- a second fillable version of the same SF 278 form is available in an alternate format, requiring a specific commercial forms viewing application (Windows-only) -- InternetForms VIEWER -- made freely available by OGE. Detailed instructions for using the PureEdge software, which allows users to save data entered into form fields, is available in a 120-page User's Manual -- available for download as a 3 MB PDF file.

The PDF fill-in version offers a glimpse at how future forms could be developed to offer built-in user assistance as needed -- clicking a JavaScript-based Help button on one page of the form reveals a tip on a particular aspect of the form. Rather than having a dozen or so pages of instructions preceeding the actual form fields, a true "smart form" could hide the instructions until they are needed, and then present them according to a user's request at the specific point in the form where they apply. Different levels of intelligence can be built in to forms, alleviating some of the most common user errors and thus improving the usefulness of the form itself.

Smart Form with Help popups

The other aspect of forms improvement reflected in Rumsfeld's complaint involves the clarity of the language itself, not something for which government bureaucracies are typically known. Despite Pres. Clinton's 1998 "Plain Language" Memorandum and initiatives, the federal government seems uncertain about how to improve forms. A 45-page handbook titled "Writing User-Friendly Documents," available in PDF from the PlainLanguage.gov site, addresses how to write better regulations, letters and notices, but offers no guidance on forms -- in fact, it *seeks* suggestions for improving that common government document type:

"In the future, we hope to add guidance on forms. If anyone has any good material on how to design clear forms, please send it to us."
The document was last updated in 1999.

If a public complaint from a highly visible federal official isn't enough to hasten the development of better forms, there's always the 'cure' allegedly used several centuries ago in England, as reported by Vern McKinley in his article "Keeping It Simple: Making Regulators Write in Plain Language" (available in PDF) for the Cato Institute's "Regulation" publication:

"In 1596, an English chancellor decided to make an example of a particularly prolix document filed in his court. The chancellor first ordered a hole cut through the center of the document, all 120 pages of it. Then he ordered that the person who wrote it should have his head stuffed through the hole, and the unfortunate fellow was led around to be exhibited to all those attending court at Westminster hall."
Such a solution would give new meaning to the term "fill-in" form!


   

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FRIDAY

Mapping the Accessibility Challenge: Since this week's Weblog has already ventured twice down the road of remembrance, we'll end the week with one more historically footnoted, PDF-oriented item. Yesterday (June 20) was "Congressional Web Accessibility Day," intended to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, legislation requiring all federal agencies to develop, procure and maintain electronic and information technology that is accessible to persons with disabilities.

The organized hoopla, which attracted a variety of political types as well as reps from involved companies such as Adobe Systems and Microsoft, was by no means intended to suggest that the challenge has been met. The reality is that the real work is just beginning now that the requirements are better understood than a year ago, and more tools are becoming available to accomplish the necessary tasks.

By coincidence, one of the final two randomly selected winners in our recent promotional contest (eight free copies of "Adobe Acrobat 5 Professional User's Guide" by Donna Baker) noted in her entry a stated desire to learn more about creating more accessible PDFs that "The government has a mandate to make everything that is posted on the Web meet 508 accessibility requirements. Unfortunately, the requirement went into effect before the procedures and software were really ready." In the vast archipelago of agencies that compose the government, it's fair to say that a year out from the Section 508 implementation, there are at best islands of accessibility. To extend that analogy further, agencies with massive amounts of legacy documents needing to be made accessible might even relate to a feeling of being shipwrecked on their island, staring at a mammoth if not at times seemingly hopeless task. For them, we bring good news -- relatively speaking: 'It could be worse!'

That is -- you could actually *be* marooned on Inaccessible Island.

Inaccessible Island

And if you were, you'd be a long row from Washington, DC, and creating structured PDF files with logical reading order for screen readers would likely be a low priority. First discovered in 1652, various attempts have been made over the decades since to make Inaccessible Island more accessible. According to a brief history of the South Atlantic Ocean outpost, its challenging terrain -- thus the name, of course -- has thwarted numerous efforts to explore the interior. Therefore, "attempts to map the island also failed due to cloud cover, and to this day there are few accurate maps of the island."

Point Pig Fell

Alas, we can't judge for its accuracy, but there now *is* a PDF-based map of the island available to download! Of course, we have no way of knowing if any of the 400 million or so distributed copies of Acrobat Reader might be freely available. (Check with Adobe Tech Support.)

We do feel safe in projecting this much: one place to definitely avoid is the spot labelled "Where the Pig Fell Off" near the island's north point. Sounds very ominous -- after all, pigs are smart animals. We also take the following statement from a report about the island's geology to suggest danger, although in fact we really have no idea what it implies:

"Weathering is high and there is much evidence of slumping."


PDF Doc Summary Info

So if you're facing a mountainous job of creating accessible portable documents from several buildings full of image-only PDFs, there are at least a few worse-case scenarios. And to end on a positive note, we want to report a small success where others apparently have failed. We *did* manage to make the island slightly more accessible -- using Adobe's free "Make Accessible" plug-in for Acrobat 5.

By the way, we promise to continue -- seriously -- on the theme of Acrobat, PDF and Accessibility next week on Planet PDF.


   

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