From the World Wide Web to cloud services: Technological developments in recent decades have fundamentally changed industry and business – and with them the work and processes in print shops. However, one small tool, or rather file format, is often overlooked in the list – even though data exchange in general and online printing in particular would not work as we know it today. We’re talking about PDF, the Portable Document Format, which turns 30 this year – and has been with me for just as long.
More than 400 billion PDF files were opened in Adobe products last year alone – at least that’s what Adobe is announcing on the anniversary of the file format, and that shows one thing: PDF is an indispensable part of today’s world – and has also had a fundamental influence on the emergence of online printing.
How? That’s what I’m going to explain in this article. And spoiler alert: I’ll also let you in on the secret and reveal what PDF, a town hall in Bobingen and I have in common – keyword: PDF Tour. But first things first.
Everything turned upside down
From today’s perspective, it may be hard to imagine; but there was a time when print data could neither be created in the blink of an eye, let alone uploaded for the print shop in a matter of seconds. It took a lot of experience and know-how to first get the motifs onto the printing plates and then onto the substrate in the desired manner. In the 1980s, desktop publishing had turned the creative process completely upside down – but at the same time created new challenges, because being able to read out and display a design exactly as it was created – better known today as WYSIWYG – was virtually impossible.
The “Camelot” project
It was only logical that Adobe co-founder John Warnock should put together a team in the early 1990s and launch the “Camelot” project. The task of “Camelot” was to develop a format that would make exactly that possible: To be able to print documents in the same way as they were created – across the boundaries of operating systems, software applications or devices. PDF was first introduced in January 1993, followed by version 1.0 of Adobe Acrobat in June of the same year. Even the first version supported links, bookmarks, embedded fonts and images in RGB. What is taken for granted today was revolutionary at the time.
Since then, the file format has been continuously developed further: security features, comments, search function or signatures, conversions or Liquid Mode for viewing on mobile devices. According to Adobe, the artificial intelligence called Sensei is already being used here.
PDF is THE standard today – across many industries
But, to make a long story short: Since 2008, the International Organization for Standardization – the ISO – has been responsible for the PDF format and turned it into an official standard in ISO 32000, which was tantamount to making PDF and Acrobat Reader available to the public free of charge. In the meantime, there are PDF standards for very different purposes: from PDF/A for archiving, through PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility), PDF/E for engineering and PDF/H for the healthcare sector, to PDF/VT for variable and transactional printing, right up to the PDF/X format. The latter has long since become the most important format in the printing industry as well, and its properties have made a significant contribution to the development of online printing.
Now it’s getting personal: from computer nerd to PDF expert
What some may not know: The PDF file format actually played an important role for me personally as well: I followed its development early on, publishing the first articles about it more than 25 years ago in the American Seybold Report and already writing then about “PDF on the fly” that would evolve into “Web-to-print.” I was even able to conduct an interview with John Warnock back then. And I also regularly reported on the news, use and importance of the then still new file format for the printing industry for the German trade magazines “Publishing Praxis” and “Deutscher Drucker” and organized the first workshops on PDF. At that time, info events like these still had such simple and unspectacular names as “PDF 98”.
“Industry Influencer” for the PDF Format
Around the turn of the millennium, the topic of “PDF in Print” really took off and turned processes upside down in German print shops as well. At Drupa 2000, together with Océ, I was able to publish my first book on the subject – more than 50,000 copies were sold at the trade show. This was followed by “PDF+print” and “PDF+print 2.0”, among others, the first of which was published not only in German, but also in Danish, English and Japanese – and unofficially even in Chinese and Russian. PDF was not only the hot topic in German-speaking countries at the time, but also worldwide.
Together with Stephan Jaeggi, I also went on a “PDF tour” in 2000 and 2001; together we held workshops throughout the DACH region and provided information on how to handle PDF in practice. From today’s perspective, we would probably have been called “industry influencers” – although “market pioneers for PDF in the printing industry” somehow better explains what we were actually doing back then.
Incidentally, there is one anecdote that I particularly like to tell in this context, because it illustrates how much people in the printing industry understood at the time about the potential of PDF: I received an inquiry from the Kessler print shop in Bobingen. I was supposed to talk about the possible applications of the new file format and how to work with it. It was only for a small group of interested people, they said, and a room in the print shop was to be the venue. But the closer the workshop came, the more the number of registered participants increased – until even the print store no longer had a suitable room available and the PDF workshop ultimately had to be moved to the town hall.
PDF – Catalyst for online printing
It was a great feeling – not because of the big stage, but because of the spirit of optimism that prevailed in the printing industry at the time. The PDF format made so many things easier in our industry. Of course, the special features that print production entails first had to be taken into account and incorporated, key words being transparencies and gradients. But once the format’s exchange standard – PDF/X – was fully developed – and the Distiller worked in the background and no longer had to be set manually, the work in print shops was completely different!
But not only are the processes for creation, data exchange, prepress and plate making completely different today than they were in the 1990s – PDF and online printers had also made it possible for the first time to address target groups that had previously played no particular role for print shops: Small and micro businesses through to private individuals.
The business model of generating print jobs via an online store would certainly have come into being even without PDF. Yes. But I’m sure that the features of PDF really kick-started this development and, figuratively speaking, laid the foundation for online print as we know it. We all know how important online printing is within the printing industry today – and if you’re not aware of this yet, you should simply be at the Online Print Symposium on March 23 and 24!