Just after midnight Monday, Adobe took what some would term a momentous, others overdue, step of initiating the process that will culminate in the Portable Document Format (PDF) becoming an independent, open standard. According to my definitions, it will also be transitioning from an open format to an open standard. Given the significance of this decision both for Adobe and for a variety of governmental and enterprise markets, I thought it would make sense to explore some of the common questions around the drivers, impacts, and importance.
Q: To begin, how about getting the usual disclaimers out of the way.
A: Adobe is not currently a RedMonk client, but has been in the past. Specifically to the PDF format, we have agitated both internally and externally for the opening of PDF for some time, as Duane acknowledges in his announcement that gives credit to my colleague James for his influence in this matter. Further, we are probably biased in favor of open standards in general, although not blindly so. That about covers it, I think.
Q: For those that may have missed the news, how about a quick recap?
A: Sure. PDF has long been what I would describe as an open format: openly documented, implementable by third parties, but not governed by an independent third party standards body and not open to external contributions. Subsets of the format, such as PDF/A, PDF/X and PDF/E are have already been submitted, but as of Monday Adobe has committed to making the entire specification an open standard within ISO via AIIM. In practical terms, this means that a.) Adobe will no longer have full control over the standard, and b.) that non-Adobe third parties will be able to contribute to PDF. As Duane puts it:
First – others will have a clearly documented process for contributing to the future of the PDF specification. That process also clearly documents the path for others to contribute their own Intellectual property for consideration in future versions of the standard…Second, it helps cement the full PDF specification as the umbrella specification for all the other PDF standards under the ISO umbrella such as PDF/A, PDF/X and PDF/E.
PDF, in other words, will become an open standard according to my definition of the term.
Q: How and why is this significant?
A: A variety of reasons. I won’t bother to build the case that PDFs are a volume file format and therefore quite important, assuming that most readers deal with enough PDFs on a day to day basis to appreciate this.
Consider, instead, Massacusetts’ decision to mandate usage of the Open Document Format (ODF) in its Enterprise Technical Reference Model on the basis of its qualification as an open standard. Against this requirement, Microsoft objected to its exclusion, arguing – with some merit – that neither was PDF such an open standard. My response to those objections read as follows:
Do I find the inclusion of PDF, for example, a trifle odd, as does Matt Asay? Yes, although I believe it’s more from the lack of a credible, open standard alternative than a disrimination against Microsoft as Matt seems to imply.
With Monday’s announcement, no such exceptions need be made in the future. PDF would be every bit the open standard that ODF is.
But more important, perhaps, is the relinquishing of control. We at RedMonk were very disappointed when Microsoft was unable to provide inline PDF support for Office due to Adobe’s intervention (here’s Brian Jones take). As Andy covers, this decision eliminates that option for Adobe:
Adobe has licensed some ISVs (such as OpenOffice.org) to enable “save to PDF” in their products – but not long ago refused to grant the same rights to Microsoft without a commitment by Microsoft to charge more for Office. How can you know that your documents are safely archived in PDF, if a single vendor can decide who may, and who may not, have full use of the technology on acceptable terms? With the entire specification subject to the standards process, the licensing undertakings that Adobe makes will need to be administered on a non-discriminatory basis.
While PDFs defenders in the past have contended that it was enough to be an open format, examples like the above bely that assertion. Independence matters.
Q: Why did Adobe make this decision? What drove them to open the standard?
A: An interesting question, and one with no simple answer. Adobe, when I spoke with them last week, cited the increasing preference amongst governmental bodies and other large entities for de jure standards over de facto standards. That makes some sense, but again that’s not a new preference on the part of those customers; ISO’s been a purchasing mandate for governmental bodies seemingly forever. So I don’t buy, entirely, that this is purely a response to customer demand.
Simon’s view is that this is a response to Microsoft’s PDF-like format, XML Paper Specification (XPS) – AKA Metro. That’s reasonably plausible, given that I’ve speculated on such competitive overlap myself in the past:
Having spoken to the Metro folks, I can tell you that they are very careful to not position Metro as a PDF alternative. With good reason, in fact, because Metro doesn’t do a lot of what PDF does. But it’s also my opinion that longer term Metro might logically become competitive with PDF, given that they share similarities in being able to preserve precisely formatting and are, in a sense, fixed preservations of on screen appearances.
But despite the fact that with Vista out the door, XPS is now real, it’s a speck marketshare-wise so if it’s a competitive threat Adobe’s responding to, it’s a long term one.
More likely, it’s a combination of the above concerns, as well as a growing recognition that open standards are not the threat they were once perceived to be – and can, in fact, grow your marketshare.
Q: Why should implementers or users of PDF technologies care?
A: Well, for one, it will be independent. For another, it will be open to contributions, although they will be managed according to the regimented – and often glacial – standards body processes. But ultimately, an open PDF standard will provide third party implementers with the knowledge that they will never be subject to Adobe’s whims with respect to the format or its implementations.
For users, the principle impact of the news for them will be the ability for third parties – Microsoft or whomever – to provide support for the format as they see fit. This manifests itself in the form of even greater tool support. In theory, this should have been possible already – and there are clearly no shortage of third party PDF implementations around already – but in practice that wasn’t always the case. Apart from that the impact should be fairly negligible.
Q: Why do you believe Adobe picked AIIM as the interim step, over something like ECMA or OASIS?
A: This actually came up in the Adobe call, but I haven’t seen many ask it outside of that. Probably that’s because everyone’s focused on the ISO destination, but still. According to Adobe, it’s got nothing to do with either of those bodies – they have good working relationships with both ECMA and OASIS – but rather is attributable to the attention AIIM pays to PDF specific concerns like archiving, records management and so on. In addition, according to Andy, one of the PDF flavors – PDF/H – is already an AIIM proposed Best Practice. While it’s possible, despite Adobe’s denials, that politics played a role in AIIM landing the standard in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I’m inclined to accept Adobe’s explanation of the choice.
Q: What does this mean for Adobe and its stance vis a vis open?
A: Well, I’m hoping that this decision will ultimately be perceived as something of a watershed event. Whether it will be so, we’ll have to see, but there’s no question that PDF is an important standard and asset to Adobe to setting it free is a non-trivial step for them. It’s my sense that Adobe’s nearing a crossroads in its history, and control will be one of the metrics I’ll use to decide which fork they’ve taken in the road.
Anne, Cote, James and I have all at various points in time called out Adobe for being too controlling, too restrictive, too intent on ‘owning’ technologies and spaces. While some of that is just good capitalism, I’m of the opinion that more often than not it’s harmful to their bottom line. One of the reasons that I took such offense at the presentation I saw at the Zend Conference, in fact, was that the message seemed to be Flash over Ajax, when I see the real opportunity as a Google Finance-style Ajax/Flash hybrid. In other words, if Adobe will work with and alongside existing technologies and vendors, I think their opportunity is very sizable indeed. If they seek to continually supplant and replace existing vendors and technologies, I’m far more pessimistic.
One announcement (or two), of course, does not a future make, but I’m hopeful that the opening of PDF is merely the first step towards a more inclusive, less controlling Adobe.
Q: Any last questions I missed?
A: One potentially interesting one: will this news encourage Microsoft to upgrade the PDF support it’s providing in Office 2007? The answer to that one is: I don’t know.