Publishing lessons from the long history of the PDF


The Portable Document Format (PDF) has come a long way since it was launched by Adobe in 1993. What started as a little-known technology to keep page layout from going wonky has now become a feature-rich format that is used by people the world over.

In 2020, Adobe estimated that there were more than 2.5 trillion PDFs in existence – that’s more than 320 PDFs for each person on Earth! In that same year, about 303 billion PDFs were opened using Adobe Document Cloud.

The PDF can offer those of us in the world of publishing and content some interesting blueprints for success. In this piece, learn more about what the development of the PDF can teach us when it comes to developing our products, driving popular appeal and soaring above competitors in the marketplace.

Step 1: Hone your specialism

When launching a new product, start with your strengths. What is your area of specialism within your markets? What are you known for? And what have been previous hits with your audience? In simple terms: do what you’re good at.

Whether you’re developing your next product or commissioning your next project, dig into your expertise, look to your audience and map out where you can deliver.

When John Warnock and Charles Geschke co-founded Adobe in 1982, computer companies were investing heavily in solutions to automate the printing process. Adobe’s first product, PostScript, was a page description language intended to improve how computers and printers communicated.

As a device-independent language, PostScript was the ideal candidate to leverage in the creation of the PDF format. Adobe had already been working with device-independent file formats and languages for years by the time it released the PDF. The company used its hard-earned knowledge and deep understanding of the needs of its audience to create a new product, and it continues to pay off.

Today, PDF files comprise more than 85% of all files on the web and there are billions of new PDFs created daily. Additionally, data from Google Trends shows that searches related to the format have continued to increase steadily over time and search volume remains high.

Step 2: Solve a problem

Your product is more likely to be successful when it solves a problem, and the PDF is a perfect example of that.

When the PDF was first released in the 1990s, there was no way to consistently communicate documents across the range of computers, operating systems, and networks. To solve this problem, Adobe co-founder John Warnock started the Camelot Project in 1990.

The project’s goal was to tackle one essential challenge: find a universal way to communicate visual material between different computer applications and systems. In the original brief for the project, Warnock stated, “If this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change.” He had no idea how right he was.

When the PDF was finally released, it solved a major problem for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by allowing tax forms to be distributed electronically. The IRS quickly became one of its largest users, which was a driving force behind the widespread adoption of the format.

Step 3: Focus on usability and reliability

To create something that stands the test of time, focus on ease of use and reliability.

The PDF is the third most popular file format on the internet, ahead of even the most popular image formats like JPEG and PNG. That’s because it’s easy to create, edit, share, print and store. The format is universally compatible, secure, and ensures that its contents look just as its author intended. It works extremely well for what it was created to do.

Today, this popularity has created a snowball effect where the PDF is popular because of its popularity: the format is so widespread that it has become essential. It has gone well beyond the desktop publishing world and is now used daily, at home and at work, for a nearly limitless number of tasks.

Other technologies like DjVu, EPUB, and Pagis have tried to compete with PDF over the years, but none have achieved the widespread adoption that PDF has. These competitors have fallen short because they lack the broad feature-set and easy usability of PDF.

Step 4: Think about open access and standardisation

Offering something free of charge might not always be the right way to go, but it can quickly generate a buzz around your product.

Working carefully-considered trial experiences or giveaways into your promotions can be especially useful if you are hoping to reach an audience that’s new to you, or build one from scratch.

Adobe tried this with the PDF, making the first PDF specifications and the Acrobat Reader available for free in 1993. While the move wasn’t without problems, providing free access did help to quickly attract new users and popularize the format. This technique was recently utilised by AI tool ChatGPT, and the tool gained 1 million users in less than a week.

Today, the PDF is an open standard, controlled and published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). As a result, the continued development of PDF specifications is now controlled by a community of stakeholders, not just Adobe. This has ultimately helped the continued popularity of the format by allowing it to change and grow to meet the needs of the broader community.

Step 5: Future-proof your product

Keeping the future in mind as you develop your product is crucial for longevity. For the publishing industry, this could mean making your content available in multiple formats and ensuring that it is easily adaptable to new media.

Adobe recognized how important this was right from the beginning. Adobe co-founder John Warnock once said, “You can’t predict what features you’ll want in the future.”

Since the PDF was built on PostScript, the format was able to adapt and evolve, as opposed to being reworked into an entirely new product. Over the years, PDF features like highlighting content, adding notes, and filling and signing forms were added.

Today there are more new features like Liquid Mode, designed to enhance the reader’s experience in the smartphone era. Adobe also plans to improve PDF content search and personalisation capabilities by leveraging Adobe Sensei, its AI technology.

Learn from the history of the PDF

After three decades of dominance, the PDF remains a ubiquitous format. The story behind the format is a blueprint for success no matter your industry or product focus.

From a publishing perspective, the PDF is a case study in how to break new ground in response to changing demands and new challenges. Technology continues to evolve – as this happens, keep an eye out for new problems waiting to be solved.

Ask yourself, what does your audience need now? How might these needs change in the future? Focus on your expertise and never forget about usability – keep it simple and intuitive. Apply these lessons and you’ll be on the path to success!

This article first appeared on the BookMachine Production & Operations blog.

Adobe, Acrobat, Acrobat Reader, Document Cloud, PostScript, Reader, and Sensei are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Marie Gollentz, Project Manager at Typefi

Marie Gollentz

Project Manager | France

Working closely with Typefi’s team of experts, Marie manages our client projects to ensure they are successfully delivered and meet our clients’ specific needs. Marie joined Typefi in 2016 as a Solutions Consultant and brings to her current role a wealth of experience in helping clients adopt the best solution to achieve their goals. In 2022, Marie achieved her Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) qualification. Marie is brilliantly trilingual in English, French and Spanish!