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How Adobe managed to reinvent the PDF for the future of the internet

Why a company spent years trying to update a 29-year-old idea — and why it's working.

Adobe PDFs

A PDF used to be a faithful representation of a piece of paper. Now it's something much more internet-y.

Image: Adobe

Almost three decades after its creation, the PDF is a staple of the internet. It's the closest thing there is to a universal online file format: Users can send and share them without first making sure their recipient has Word, or Keynote, or is up to date on their software updates. Odds are, anything with a screen can probably show PDFs. That's why PDFs have outlived practically everything else launched in 1993, like Windows NT, the MessagePad and the phrase "Apple CEO John Scully."

In recent years, though, it feels as if the internet has left PDFs behind. Work involves collaboration and multimedia; documents are created and read on smartphones and tablets; sending files via email attachments is a dying practice. Maybe it's time for the PDF to RIP.

Adobe sees it differently. The company believes that a universal online file format is more important than ever, in a world where work happens in dozens of apps and across many devices. The rise of Google Docs didn't obviate PDFs, Adobe decided, but rather made it more important for there to be a format both Google Docs and Microsoft Word could understand. "Not everything is an app," said Ashley Still, Adobe's SVP of Creative Cloud and Document Cloud. "PDFs are a way to pass data across apps." The more apps people use, the more important that could be.

Instead of giving up on the PDF, or trying to install an entirely new 2020-appropriate file format in its place, Adobe spent the last several years attempting to reinvent what a PDF is, how it works, and what users can do with it. The dream of the future PDF is one that can be saved anywhere, edited anywhere, and used for practically anything. So Adobe has helped make sure PDFs work on all devices and screen sizes, and can handle the collaborative work users expect. In the process, it's made the PDF even more important, especially as the world shifts toward remote work, and has helped turn Adobe's Document Cloud software into its fastest-growing product. The universal online file format lives on.

Part of Adobe's reinvention process involved deciding what a PDF is good for, and what it's not. This is where its history is important. In 1991, at the very beginning of the PDF project, which Adobe called "Camelot," co-founder John Warnock described the problem like this: "The specific problem is that most programs print to a wide range of printers, but there is no universal way to communicate and view this printed information electronically." Documents, he wrote, should be viewable on any screen and printable on any printer. "If this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change."

Ashley Still and Lisa Croft Ashley Still (left) Adobe's SVP/GM of digital media, and Lisa Croft, director of product marketingPhotos: Adobe

Paper was always the metaphor for the PDF. "When we first started," Adobe Director of Digital Media Product Enablement Lisa Croft said, "it was more about just getting paper to digital. That's all we were focused on: making sure it looks as good on the screen as it looks on paper." And just like you don't need special tools or skills to read or write on paper, the PDF became easier to create over time. Adobe's Acrobat Reader software was made free, and eventually PDF was turned into an open standard, a way for people "to exchange and view electronic documents independent of the environment in which they were created or the environment in which they are viewed or printed."

This is, of course, basically a solved problem. Anyone with a browser can at least view a Google Docs or Dropbox link, and those tools are familiar to practically everyone. And who prints anymore?

Printing may not be the PDF's raison d'etre anymore, but it's still the right model. "I mean, no one's going to create a PDF just to start typing," Still said. "There's a phase of the document lifecycle where it's not everyone's initial thoughts, when the document kind of graduates to a level of importance." It's a sales proposal, she said, or a document to be reviewed by clients or bosses, anything meant to feel polished and be shared. "That's typically when a PDF is created." All the things people do after they print a document, Still said, Adobe wants to make possible without printing.

Integrating the PDF with other work tools was fairly straightforward, because the PDF was already so widespread. Adobe's PDF Services APIs are now integrated into everything from Office to Salesforce to Workday to Dropbox, where people can view, share and organize PDFs. Because it's an open standard, developers could build their own PDF tools, but Croft said Adobe has one distinct advantage: "We're very good at it." Instead of trying to own the format, Adobe's now trying to build the best software around it. The idea is simple but increasingly rare: that you should be able to edit the same file in any tool you choose.

Convert to PDF tool One of Adobe's plans for improving the PDF is to make them easier to create, like with the tool.Image: Adobe

To that end, Adobe's also trying to make it easier for people to create PDFs. Its Scan app is an easy way to turn a piece of paper, an image or a whiteboard into a more shareable digital document. And the company built an eminently memorable shortcut: Type into a browser, upload almost any kind of file, and instantly get a PDF to download. Adobe will happily sell users an Acrobat license, of course, but just like Google's bet that getting people internet access would inevitably lead to more Google users, Adobe sees the PDF as the gateway drug to its whole product universe.

The bigger challenge for Adobe has been figuring out how to make PDFs feel native on new kinds of devices, particularly smartphones. Everyone's had the experience of panning and zooming through a desktop-optimized document on their phone, and nobody likes that experience. So Adobe invested heavily in a feature it calls Liquid Layout, which attempts to automatically reflow a document to fit every screen. Three columns become one column, text gets bigger, everything should look as if the document was custom made for whatever screen a user is looking at. "As a user, my choice is going to be whatever I need at the moment," Croft said. "So it should be mobile, it should be desktop, it should be browser, it should also be in another application if I need it to be."

Adobe built tools for PDF creators to custom-design these Liquid layouts, but most people won't. And one problem with PDFs has been that they're almost too easy to create, which means there's no reliable formatting or underlying structure. The real challenge for Adobe, then, was building machine-learning software that can automatically figure out what's in a PDF, using its Sensei technology. Getting this tech right took Adobe a while — longer than it expected, Croft said — but now the company feels like it's ready.

As these documents begin to understand themselves more deeply, they become much more useful, too. Adobe's optical character recognition tech has gotten good at scanning an image, pulling out text, and making it easier to search or edit. It's easier to create forms, outline a document, or grab data or contacts from within a PDF.

Adobe Sign For all the other stuff it can do, PDFs are still most useful as official, signable documents.Image: Adobe

But maybe the most valuable thing a PDF can be, Adobe thinks, is a capital-O Official document. Especially as COVID has changed the way people interact, having a way to pass and bless contracts and the like is more important than ever. Still mentioned students signing honor codes when they turn in tests, signing service agreements with mechanics or contractors, even the everyday process of opening a bank account. So many people take certain kinds of paper documents for granted, Still said, and she's seen them all turn digital in recent months. She said the use of Adobe's Sign product is up 175% since the beginning of 2020, "and these are big numbers on top of big numbers." (Adobe's not the only one noticing the trend, by the way: DocuSign's share price has nearly tripled in 2020.)

The third prong in Adobe's PDF Improvement Plan, storing and sharing PDFs, is Document Cloud itself. The product is something akin to Google Drive For PDFs, with all of Adobe's authoring, intelligence and sharing tools in a single place. Even as Adobe has tried to be a good partner and play nicely with other tools, it's also built a soup-to-nuts PDF workflow in its own products. Users can create PDFs in Acrobat or by taking a photo with Adobe Scan, upload them to Document Cloud, and edit, share and store them there. No downloads, no desktop apps, no complicated version histories. Just one document, available and editable anywhere.

That's the core difference between the PDF of old and the PDF of the future: What used to live in email attachments with names ending in _FINALV3.pdf can now be a single thing, accessible to everyone everywhere. That sounds fairly normal, though, right? Google Docs and Dropbox have taught users to expect that. But Adobe's goal is to make a document that can do and be all those things inside Google Docs, Dropbox, Microsoft Word, Box, Salesforce, computer desktops and so many other places at the same time. It separates the file from the application, in a world where those two things have become all too intertwined.

Twenty-nine years ago, Warnock wrote about wanting to provide a way "to communicate visual material between different computer applications and systems." In a business world where information is increasingly siloed and proprietary, that vision is as important to Adobe as ever. And with a pandemic forcing people to be spread apart the same way, easy ways to share data — across devices, apps, operating systems and borders of all kinds — have never been in higher demand.

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