PDF Evolution: From Inception to Newest Applications

PDF Evolution: From Inception to Newest Applications

A long time ago, in the Milky Way galaxy, users couldn’t share files created on different devices and in different programs seamlessly, without stumbling upon lost or alternated colors, fonts, images, or layout details. And then, there emerged PDF, and it saved the world from the formatting chaos.

How the History of PDF Started

The history of PDF dates back to the late 70s, when John Warnock, a clever man and, by chance, a PhD in electrical engineering, conceived the idea of a page description language that would be able to control printing on any printer or computer. He received hearty support from his colleague Charles Geschke, another pioneer computer scientist, yet not from the management of Xerox PARC, where they both worked at that time. So, the pair branched out on their own and collected a team of engineers to develop the PostScript language, which was launched on the market in 1984 and revolutionized the media and publishing industry.

However, the team wasn’t going to rest on its laurels and moved to developing a tool more focused on capturing and displaying documents rather than printing. In 1991, they launched The Camelot Project and used PostScript to construct a platform-independent file format for document digitalization. One year on, they completed the initial version and arrived at a new name, Portable Document Format. It was released in 1993, in tandem with the Acrobat Reader, a program capable of reading the newly developed format.

What Is PDF Format?

So, thanks to Warnock and Geschke, the world now had a new technology to create, display, and share readable and printable electronic documents on any device with all the formatting and graphic elements preserved. Unlike JPG and other image formats, a PDF is not just a picture of some pages but a file precisely describing a fixed-layout document that may include flat text, raster and vector graphics, structuring elements, interactive content, and other information. As opposed to DOCX, which can comprise content other than plain text, a PDF is not easily editable and more protected from alterations. It is also free from formatting issues that pop up when switching between Word versions.

Here is a list of features that make a PDF file a go-to option in today’s electronic document flow and other niches:

  • PDF files can be opened and viewed on various operating systems (Windows, macOS, Linux), in all modern browsers (Edge, Chrome, Safari), and on different devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones). 
  • PDF files retain the original formatting, including fonts, images, colors, layout, and document structure, to be properly displayed and printed on a variety of devices, regardless of the system.
  • PDF supports various levels of protection, such as passwords, encryption, and digital signatures, allowing you to restrict access and prevent unauthorized copying, editing, or printing of documents. 
  • PDF files can contain interactive elements, such as hyperlinks, bookmarks, forms, multimedia, and embedded scripts, to create e-books, fillable forms, and other interactive materials.

PDF’s Thorny Way to Popularity

Despite all the above benefits, the developers had to figure out how to make a PDF file part of our usual tech stack. Initially, the standard failed to gain vast popularity because of its proprietary format and paid tools needed to create and read PDF files. Even the phenomenal growth of the Internet in the late 20th century didn’t help to spark a massive interest in the format since its early versions produced too heavy files for smooth download and fast display on the slow modems and computers of that time.

However, the developers kept releasing new PDF versions with expanded and improved features, including external links, passwords, interactive elements, digital signatures, JBIG2 image compression, OCR text layer, and more. They also released a free tool for creating, viewing, and printing PDF files, which definitely contributed to the format’s growing use. By the beginning of the new century, PDF was recognized as an accepted format for information exchange and taken on board by large organizations, such as Microsoft and US tax authorities. 

But the biggest fun started in 2008 when the format evolved into an official ISO standard and became openly accessible for both regular users and software developers who can now create apps to manipulate PDF files without paying royalties. It’s no wonder PDF grew into the 3rd most popular file format on the web, much ahead of DOCX or JPEG. 

Modern Apps for PDF

Users interested in how to make a PDF file or print it out can breathe a sigh of relief: in most cases, they don’t need to download and install something unless they are trying to work on their grandma’s washing machine. Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Apple Pages, LibreOffice, and other wide-spread word processors and office suites can save files in PDF in several clicks. You will also hardly spot a browser, e-book reader, or printing device that is not PDF-friendly by default. 

Things get trickier when you need to make a PDF editable, sign an e-document, or perform complex manipulations like splitting or merging. Luckily, you have quite a choice of PDF software falling into different categories:

  • paid tools, free apps, and trialware;
  • online services and downloadable software;
  • desktop versions, mobile apps, and web apps working in a browser;
  • OS-specific and cross-platform solutions;
  • creators (to create a document and export it to PDF), viewers (to read and annotate), editors (to alter content), converters (to convert PDF to other formats), and feature-rich hybrids. 

Moreover, there are now frontier solutions, such as apps creating AR-enhanced PDF and AI-based audio readers, which not only read PDF files aloud in different voices and languages but also summarize long documents into briefs.

Final Thoughts

Thirty years after its original release, PDF is still going strong, and developers never stop inventing how to make a PDF file even more useful, versatile, and interactive. From accessing documents using Siri to stepping inside a PDF with VR, the good old format has plenty of wonders to wow us time and again.