Editorial Against PDFs (long)

Subject: Editorial Against PDFs (long)
From: Lisa Priester <priester -at- XTISED -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 5 Mar 1998 14:55:07 -0000

Some anonymous person left the hard copy of this article in my mailbox. It's an opinion column from the February 16, 1998 Network World magazine. I have received permission from the magazine to pass along the full text of this short article, which was written by Mark Gibbs and copyrighted as described in http://www.nwfusion.com/copyright.html

I know the article was given to me because, as the lone writer in a 300+ person that has NO standards, I began using PDFs to electronically distribute documents to the SMEs and our customers. (We are a small aerospace R&D firm and I work on systems engineering documentation for offices around the country.) I have met a great deal of resistance to PDFs from some folks, as evidenced by bizarre statements such as, "I don't have room on my computer for that PDF file. Can you send me the Word file instead so I can print it off?" All I can figure is some people don't like change.

We're in review time here, so once again I am busy justifying my existence. I intend to respond to Mr. Gibbs when I have a chance, but I also would like to hear what you folks with more commercial-arena experience have to say. And thanks to this list for helping a lone writer stay sane!

Into the Information Age ... without PDF

By Mark Gibbs

W hat is the obsession with Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF)? You see it used all over the Internet and in all sorts of products. I've had single-page product sheets and press releases sent to me in PDF format, as well as white papers and product documentation.

The problem is, I just don't get it.

Why use PDF? The fact that an electronic document can "look'' like a real document doesn't make it more valid. If it is electronic, it is electronic.

In the case of vendors, I'm at a complete loss as to why they supply their manuals in PDF. Is it laziness? Is it because they can print their documentation that is laid out for paper directly to the PDF driver rather than go to the trouble of creating a specifically electronic version?

That doesn't make a lot of sense. The vendors could just as easily export the document to HTML, which would be generally more useful.

Just imagine if all of your vendors supplied their manuals in HTML. You could add their content to your intranet content and all of your users would have access to the manuals. You could even annotate and modify the documentation to suit your organization's needs. Nirvana!

Of course, it may be that vendors figure that their deathless prose has such great intrinsic value that the hoi polloi shouldn't be able to cut and paste it. Unfortunately, most vendor manuals are dull, pedestrian tomes that fail utterly in providing insight and added value to their product.

PDF files are a hangover, a retro technology that serves to keep us in the data age. The data age? Yep, that's what we're struggling out of. The data age was an era when just to get access to any content was an incredible step forward.

The data age view was, in its time, a reasonable and rational way of looking at the world. As the cost of computing fell to reasonable levels and software matured to the point at which it was possible to provide cost-effective business functionality, what mattered was data.

This was because the handling of data was a practical goal. We didn't have the luxury or the appreciation of information-handling tools. What we wound up with were databases and spreadsheets - tools that allowed us to manipulate the bulk of our interests rather than their essence.

Folks, we're supposed to be moving out of the data age. We're supposed to be in the information age. That's the age that recognizes meaning and purpose as a prerequisite of possessing knowledge, as fundamental attributes of that stuff we call information.

Manipulate data and you can, for example, handle your inventory or your sales.

But handle information and you find that you can optimize inventory and determine which salespeople are the most effective and why.

Without focusing on and acquiring information, the idea of electronic commerce is a mere streamlining of data processing. It's rather like taking a VW Beetle, painting racing stripes on it, and trying to enter the Le Mans. Sure, you might get in, but you'll be running an underpowered, noncompetitive machine.

So what to do about PDF? Well, if you are a vendor, think carefully before you use it. Do you have a real need for it? If you are an end user and you create PDF documents, ask yourself why. Is it simply because it is easy? Or is it because document layout fidelity is a real concern?

And if in either instance document fidelity really is a concern, is that concern based on content or layout?

I have yet to find a compelling need for document layout fidelity, but if you think you have one, please write and let me know and I'll be glad to admit I was wrong. Until then, my slogan will be "PDF. Just say no.''

Send your arguments to nwcolumn -at- gibbs -dot- com or speak your mind on (800) 622-1108, Ext. 7504.


Lisa Priester
Senior Technical Editor
XonTech, Inc.
Priester -at- xtised -dot- com

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