Re: Editorial Against PDFs

Subject: Re: Editorial Against PDFs
From: "Wilcox, John (WWC, Contractor)" <wilcoxj -at- WDNI -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 6 Mar 1998 08:43:00 -0800

Into the Information Age ... without PDF

By Mark Gibbs

What 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.

>>> Yes, that apparently is the problem.

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

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

>>> Huh? It certainly has nothing to do with laziness, as it's just as
easy to produce a .doc file or a .htm file or whatever. And if one uses
a .doc file or a .htm file or whatever instead of a .pdf file, it's
still an electronic version. Now I don't get it.

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.

>>> That is certainly NOT generally the case. Converting to HTML (and
getting the output reasonably acceptable) takes more time and effort.

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 can do the same with PDF.

You could even annotate and modify the documentation to suit your
organization's needs. Nirvana!

>>> So much for copyrights.

>>> The main thing is that it wouldn't necessarily look the same on all
machines. With PDF, the doc will look the same regardless of whose
computer you view it on, or whether that computer is running Windows 95,
NT, UNIX, or Macintosh.

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

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.

>>> [blather about which age we're in snipped]

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

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

>>> Often it is for layout. Riddle me this: Why would you elect to use
another delivery method that would result in NOT having a doc that looks
the way it was intended.

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.

>>> How about for support purposes. If your documentation is
distributed in a medium that may look different to different users,
depending on the technology THEY have with which to view it, you will
not be able to say, for example, "Refer to the schematic on page 12."

Until then, my slogan will be "PDF. Just say no.''

>>> It's the 90's, Mark. Get over it.

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



John Wilcox, Documentation Specialist
Timberlands Information Services, Application Delivery Group
Weyerhaeuser, WWC 2E2, Box 2999
Tacoma, WA 98477-2999 USA
253-924-7972 mailto:wilcoxj -at- wdni -dot- com
(I don't speak for Weyerhaeuser, and they return the favor.)

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