Re: PDF versus HTML

Subject: Re: PDF versus HTML
From: Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- JCI -dot- COM
Date: Mon, 14 Oct 1996 15:33:00 -0600

I'll make my comments brief, but I'm sure that *still* won't avoid a long

PDF Pros:
- Acrobat reader has smaller RAM footprint than current browsers (Acrobat
3.0 beta on my system asks for just over 4 MB. Both Netscape and MSIE
demand twice that.) This makes it easier to refer to the docs while using
other programs.

PDF Cons
- Adobe continues to publish on Mac first then Windows (support

This is a con? Personally I always thought it showed a commitment to
quality. You know, first make the program work, then get it to work with
Windoesn't. ;{>}

Seriously, this point is invalid, as Acrobat 3.0 seems to be headed for
Windoze first.

- There is an HTML standards body.

which is largely ignored by the software developers. This pro is invalid.

- User's can modify the source easily (add their own links).

I dunno. From a documentation standpoint, this can be a bigger con than
pro. So your customer site adds some pages to your documentation. They look
just like your pages, but the major difference is *they're wrong.* But the
users believe it's *your company* that screwed up, not their own people who
added the pages. Your rep gets trashed. The users "know" that your company
is so confused about its own product that they should never buy from you
again. (Never mind that it isn't true. It doesn't *need* a factual basis;
it's a perception issue.)


- No two browsers can be relied upon to view the same page in the same
manner. Even when in "Netscape compatible" mode, there are significant
differences between the way MSIE and Netscape handle many formatting tags.

There's an ongoing discussion over which is to be preferred. I don't
believe there's one answer to the question. A lot of it depends upon your
exact situation and your audience.

Let me give a real-world example, which may or may not be typical. I've
installed a package with HTML-based documentation. I haven't used it much,
because it's too tedious for me to to have to fire up a browser to read the
docs. And when I do, the overall impression I get is one of general
shoddiness, because of the HTML formatting.

There's two things at work there: First, I admit that it probably takes
only slightly less time to load Acrobat than a browser. But the facts
aren't the point; my perception is. And my perception is that I'm loading a
lot of crap I don't need to load (mail reader, news reader, FTP software,
etc.) when I fire up a browser to read docs. So there's a general
perception of having to wait for a lot of unnecessary things; I don't want
to read the news, or check my mail -- I want to read the docs!

Second, I'm used to higher production values in docs. Perhaps it's not
reasonable, but I want good-looking text flowing past well-done graphics
tightly controlled to be aesthetically pleasing, rather than just
haphazardly placed on the page with bizarre line breaks which make no
logical sense, but rather are simply imposed from without at the whim of my
current browser window size. (Oh, I just *love* wasting time trying to
adjust my browser window to the optimum width for the document I'm viewing.
Don't you?) Yes, if you ask me I 'll tell you I want accuracy to have more
emphasis than prettiness, but I'm not willing to settle for making that an
either-or proposition. If you give me accuracy, but your competition gives
me reasonably the same level of accuracy and higher production values, You
Lose. Sorry, but it's that simple.

One of the things about HTML design which has always struck as absurd is
the way flexibility is both cherished and avoided. Broswers are to be
preferred because they let the user set the parameters for viewing. But you
shouldn't design your pages to require anything other than the standard
defaults, both in color scheme and in size, because then the user has to
change away from the default settings. Which means that the user needs to
keep the default setting, and not be flexible, at the risk of dimishing the
readability of your docs. (We just had a thread on this list about the need
for extra work when the margins change. The same thing happens in the HTML
world. It's not possible to design something to be equally accessible at
all possible margin settings.) Either it's good that the user can change
the defaults, or its bad; I have trouble seeing how *both* views can be

There are plenty of applications where HTML outshines PDF; I just don't see
CD-ROM delivered docs as one of them.

Have fun,
Chief Managing Director In Charge, Department of Redundancy Department
DNRC 224

Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- JCI -dot- Com
In God we trust; all others must provide data.
Opinions expressed are mine and mine alone.
If JCI had an opinion on this, they'd hire someone else to deliver it.

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