The story of the PDF, the invention of “the most stupid” become a must

The PDF documents are so imposed on a daily basis that one could easily forget that this format has not always been a standard. The Portable Document Format was created in the early 1990’s by Adobe and it took nearly ten years for it to finally convince and become a de facto standard, and then a standard to short.


Basic Photo : Aaron Buren

Where is the PDF ? Why is it that he has not convinced immediately ? Return on an invention that has changed the computer…


Originally, there was a PostScript


Adobe introduced the first version of the PDF in 1993, but it is necessary to go back a few years back to understand his birth. It is indeed at the turn of the 1980s, within the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the research and development center of Xerox, was born the idea of creating a format capable of defining a document composed of rich text and illustrations.


The goal was before all to print these documents. You should know that at this time, the printers connected to the computers were still very rudimentary. The majority of the equipment available could not print the text without any formatting, and a line-by-line. The first laser printers appear on the market in the 1980s, and with them, the promise of print pages of text entire, with a sophisticated layout and even graphics and images.


The problem is that there is no simple solution to print documents of this quality. John Warnock, a researcher in mathematics education, has filled that absence with a language capable of describing both the content and the form of a document. Even if it was not yet called so, it has finalised the principle of PostScript during its passage to the PARC of Xerox.


The Alto, the first personal computer with a graphical user interface created in the Xerox PARC. Photo by Eric Fischer (CC BY 2.0)

Compared to everything that existed until then, PostScript brings several technical innovations. This language supports both the text and graphic content, so that it was often necessary to separate components. But his greatest contribution is the management vector of geometric shapes and especially fonts. Previously, the letters were converted into images composed of pixels before printing, which meant that the rendering quality was dependent on the final size of each character. With PostScript, they are made by vector shapes, which means that they retain their sharpness at any size.


One might think that this idea would be of interest to a company that specializes in printing and reprography, but the leaders of Xerox didn’t see the commercial potential of PostScript. Like many other finds in the PARK — the graphical user interface was inspired by Apple for its Macintosh, to take another example — the concept which led to the PDF escapes him. And since his employer is not interested in a commercial exploitation of his invention, John Warnock decides to leave the company.


Following a long tradition of Silicon Valley, he created his own start-up with Charles Geschke, a co-worker of the PARK. They begin their adventure in the garage of Warnock in Los Altos. The company Adobe Systems is formally established in December 1982 and the following year she and a dozen employees, real office space and especially a license agreement with Apple Computer. All this thanks to PostScript, an immediate success.


David Geschke (left) and John Warnock (right) in the garage that was used for a few months as the corporate headquarters of Adobe Systems. Picture from the book Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story by Pamela Pfiffner.

Apple and Adobe are aware of a success huge in the 1980s thanks to their initial agreement. A meeting with Steve Jobs current 1983 eventually convince the two founders of Adobe that the true value of their work is in the software, not the hardware. Apple is working on both the Macintosh and the LaserWriter, the first laser printers on the market. By taking a license of PostScript, the firm of Cupertino can offer a complete solution, from the computer with a graphical user interface for designing documents, to the printer head of an output of excellent quality.


It is this seamless integration that allows both to Apple to take off in the world of printing, and Adobe to get in a good place thanks to PostScript. Selling licenses of its software built-in printers, and fonts, and finally of the software, Illustrator first and then Photoshop, the success of Adobe is explosive. The company employed quickly hundreds of people, between the stock market and has established itself as a major player in the field.


A Macintosh, with its LaserWriter printer (image of Apple)

Even if the PostScript is a huge success, it remains confined to the domain of the PAO, the publication assisted by computer. John Warnock sees quickly further and seeks a better solution for sharing digital documents without printing them…


The PDF, a lightweight version and misunderstood of the PostScript


The PostScript enables you to print documents of a complexity incomparable, incomparable quality, but it has a big flaw : it requires a lot of computing power. So much so that the computers of the 1980s could not manage, in any case not quickly enough. It is for this reason that the LaserWriter includes PostScript, not the Macintosh. The processor Motorola 68000 printer runs at 12 MHz, four, MHz higher than that of the computer, and it is also sold three times more expensive than the Macintosh.


It must be said that the PostScript describes a document by a series of commands that allow to reconstruct very precisely. It is a real programming language, complete and also complex, too much for the computers of the time. And then it is thought for printing and optimized for it. It does not fit the display of a document on a screen. For example, to display the fourth page of a document, it must first wait the time that the first three pages are generated.


Excerpt from a PostScript document.

This complexity poses a big problem for the computer of the 1980s, to such an extent that John Warnock “cheat” at the request of Steve Jobs. When the latter wants to present the LaserWriter, he wants a demo faster than the reality. To speed up the demo, the co-founder of Adobe had the idea to convert the original file into a document that is ” flat “. The impression that took about two minutes on a Macintosh that is complete then in about twenty seconds.


This idea thought to work around the slowness of the computers of the 1980’s used a few years later, when John Warnock seeks a better solution than PostScript to share rich documents. We could say that a PDF file is a simplified version of a PostScript file, the latter serving as an intermediary at the outset. Visually, there are no differences between the two, but the PDF can be viewed quickly by any computer of the 1990s, while the PostScript needed computing power still rare.


This is not because the idea is good and that its success will be huge afterwards that it was a foregone conclusion. It is quite the opposite : Adobe has a lot of difficulties playing this new format of files released in its first version in June 1993. While the PostScript was a success, quite dazzling in becoming a standard since its early years, the PDF needs several years to impose.


John Warnock even said that he was told “this is the stupidest idea I have heard in my life ” when he presented the PDF of a business for the first time. In the first few years, nobody wants this new format, and Adobe is planning to abandon it completely, so it does not seem to interest anyone, so that its development had been costly.


Why such a reaction ? On the one hand, it is necessary to initially buy two different software packages to take advantage of the PDF. Acrobat Distiller converts a PostScript document into PDF (the license costs 695 $) and Acrobat Reader allows you to open and read the documents in PDF (50 $). The company understands very quickly that the format will take off, ever with a player for a fee and Reader is available free of charge since 1994. The tool of creation remains paying for long years, this is only from the moment when the PDF became an open standard that we can use the authoring tools Adobe free.


In a more fundamental way, the PDF was a precursor appeared a few years too early. In 1993, the network was on the internet already, but almost nobody had access to it (a million connected computers in 1992) and it was so slow that the idea of sending a PDF file by the internet was almost science fiction. This advertising Adobe for the first version of Acrobat shows the real problem : everyone was in the habit to work with paper and fax.



In this context, the PostScript was enough though, since we created a document on a computer with the purpose of the print. One could add that the screens in color, large enough to display a digital document of good quality also lacked in the first half of the 1990s. Even if a company had access to the internet and could provide documents as well, the quality would be better in printing.


The u.s. taxes to the aid of the PDF


With the development of the internet network, the exchange of PDF is gradually becoming easier. As of 1996, there are 36 million computers connected and this number is more than ten-fold increase during the transition to the year 2000. But, at least in the United States, there is another actor who plays a great role to help the PDF : theInternal Revenue Office, better known under the acronym of IRS.


In the early 1990s, the u.s. taxes , which were sent to more than one hundred million of letters throughout the country at one time, the largest shipment to be managed for the u.s. postal service. It was a headache and a financial drain, although the agency was one of the first users of the PDF. As early as 1994, it begins to distribute a notice of assessment to a PDF and it offers no less than 600 PDF documents for download on its brand new site in 1996. In 2001, Adobe welcomes 100,000 employees of the IRS have a license of Acrobat, and that the agency wins a lot of time and money with PDF.


Photo By Kelly Sikkema

Like the IRS, the world discovered little by little all the advantages of this format is easy to exchange without losing the formatting and practice for the archives with the possibility to search content within files, a possibility coming later. The PDF would probably have suffered the same fate without this boost from u.s. taxes, but his input in our daily lives would probably have been much slower.


For Adobe, to hold good at been paying, but it took nearly ten years for the firm maximize its investment. Acrobat eventually surpasses Photoshop in terms of revenues, in 2001. At this stage, the Acrobat Reader has 400 million users worldwide, while the PDF is its place on the internet.


Become a standard in the facts, the PDF also becomes an official standard on the first of July 2008. Adobe then passes the torch to an independent committee for the further development of the format, even if the firm retains numerous patents. In July 2017 out the PDF 2.0, a minor move for the users, but major for his work of rewriting. The PDF is based on open technologies, without any patent.

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