PDF – From Open Format to Open Standard: The Q&A

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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.


  1. It doesn’t necessairily resolve the Microsoft standoff. At the Vista launch yesterday, I asked Chris Capossela whether the PDF announcement meant Microsoft would revisit the issue of building PDF into Office. The gist of his answer: No. For Microsoft, it sounds like it’s less about the legal situation with PDF’s openness and more about the backroom politics of not overly annoying Adobe. Chris’s answer basically boiled down to ‘in the interests of the partnership, this is what we think is best.’ (Observers can feel free to speculate on what Adobe said or threatened that successfully cowed Microsoft …) I definitely think setting PDF free is an interesting and positive step, but it doesn’t entirely prevent Adobe from continuing to put its thumb on the scales in dealing with The Redmond Menace.

  2. The interesting question will be the long term roadmap Adobe has chosen. Is this Adobe facing the inevitable need to open PDF for it to survive in an “ODF world” and still compete with Metro or has Adobe made a strategic change and is heading towards an approach embracing open standards as a growth mechanism? Interesting times – it’s like watching standardization of the railroads way back when. Slowly the industry starts to coalesce around standards, those who oppose may fall by the side, and the standards fuel new growth.

  3. Adobe Adds Non-Assert…

    I just got home from a great day at JFokus in Sweden , so this is my first chance to pass longer comment on Adobe’s excellent move to turn PDF into a ratified international standard like ODF. I first saw the news in Duane’s blog and saw from there…

  4. […] In other somewhat esoteric software news, the PDF spec has moved from an open format to an open standard. Something that I’d been betting on for a while but it’s still good to know that Adobe did the right thing here. Stephen O’Grady has some good discussion of the shift in openness here. Posted by jim on Feb 02 2007 under General | | […]

  5. Stacy: thanks very much for that input; should answer the question for the time being. not sure i can agree on the Adobe front, however. while they can still exert indirect influence, of course, via implied or implicit behaviors, once it’s in ISO they can’t directly stop anyone. and strong arming would be a tactic frowned upon severely, i would think. severely enough to make it non-practical.

    Mike: i agree, and although the jury’s still out i can tell you that Adobe has some very good standards advocates internally.

  6. You know, the last time Adobe opened up a private specification to the public was to combat a newly announced technology. I was there – infamous keynote session in 1989 in which Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates announced a new type format called TrueType that threatened the stranglehold Adobe’s Type 1 format had on the publishing business, much to the visible dismay of Adobe’s John Warnock.

    So, if you people are asking “why” – well, that why – XPS and 00XML are threats to the PDF Castle – so Adobe drains the moat and removes the drawbridge door.

    In the world of poker, we might call this an ‘all in’ moment – and while it appears that Adobe winds this game, some feel that they are still playing in the Gates casino.

    No business does these things because ‘it is the right thing to do’. They do this when someone changes the game, and you need to stay in the game.

  7. […] Since Adobe MAX Adobe has done quite a lot to build trust with me that they’ll stay true to “giving away” the core technology and try to compete on tools and tools integration. I’m still very cautious, but I no longer have a knee-jerk reaction that Adobe will chase the fast-buck in favor of lowering barriers to entry. There is still much to be proved and done on an ongoing basis, but at least they are moving and doing. Open source is by far the wrong comparison to pull in here. But, there is something more open happening than I’m used to from a closed source company. They’re trying to navigate the waters Sun did with Java before going open source in strategy, and it’s interesting to watch. […]

  8. […] the company’s platforms, setting it on a new course. Think Flex (open sourcing the SDK), PDF (From Open Format to Open Standard), Tamarin, Open Screen Project and so on. David is a deep thinker and it has been a privilege […]

  9. […] waiting for.” Some worthy contributions have appeared in the blogosphere, especially from RedMonk, and the comments on Scobleizer and Duane’s World are also interesting. Overall, the news is […]

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