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Every file format has a history: The creation of the PDF

The PDF has adapted to the modern age, which continues to put this technology in the hands of even more people on a daily basis. 

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Just about everyone on the planet has heard of PDF (Portable Document Format), but very few know about ‘The Camelot Project’ that brought it into existence.

Without this project and its leader, Adobe co-founder John E. Warnock, it is highly likely that none of us would be able to sign, send, and view documents on computers with different processing systems – not to mention be able to convert printed material to a digital format. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, computers were being used more and more for more and more different things.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this meant that there were several different operating systems in play, each of which had its own file formats and way of rendering documents.

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Image: QQ

Adobe, led by Warnock, set out to create a file format that could be readable in the same way on every machine, regardless of whether it was running Mac, UNIX, or Windows.  

“The problem,” said Warnock in his essay “The Camelot Project,” “is concerned with our ability to communicate visual material between different computer applications and systems. 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.”

His vision was to create a file format that both “should be viewable on any display and should be printable on any modern printers.” 

The creation of such a file format began with a technology Warnock had already helped to invent: the PostScript document scripting language.

This script was too heavy to be run by many of the computers that existed at the time, however, so some major changes had to be made (as in, every single operator had to be redefined) to turn it into something more manageable for the average computer user.

As Warnock and the rest of those involved with The Camelot Project set to work trying to build something that would work more smoothly, the demand for it only continued to grow.  

The IRS, for example, had recently run up against the realization that far too much paper was being wasted each year when U.S. citizens filed their taxes.

So much paper being sent via the postal service often resulted in things getting lost, and when it did arrive at the IRS, it did so in piles that were difficult to keep track of and sort through.

This made the company an ideal customer for The Camelot Project’s new invention, and its usefulness to such a large and important organization is part of why it skyrocketed in popularity… eventually. 

In 1992, Adobe debuted its brand-new PDF technology with a new name: Acrobat 

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Image: KnowTechie

It won “Best in Show” at the COMDEX (Computer Dealers Exposition) trade show, and while the press and other tech enthusiasts were very excited about it, it didn’t quite take off as The Camelot Project team had hoped.

The IRS started using PDFs as early as 1994, but they were one of just a few major clients. According to a 2010 interview with Warnock:

“When Acrobat was announced, the world didn’t get it. They didn’t understand how important sending documents around electronically was going to be.” 

Not even big technology corporations understood it. Warnock continued: “When I described Acrobat to IBM executives, I said, ‘There is a trick you can use to capture all the printout and make it into a device-independent thing that you can ship around networks.’ They absolutely didn’t get it.” 

The reception of the product was so bad, in fact, that Adobe eventually considered killing the Acrobat brand altogether. But Warnock and his team fought for it and found a different strategy.

Initially, Adobe’s Acrobat Reader cost users $35-$50 to use for reading PDFs. In 2007, though, Adobe allowed the format to become standardized through the International Standards Organization (ISO) – making it free for anyone to use. 

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This standardization made it possible for organizations such as the Library of Congress to start using PDF to archive documents and store them digitally, making it much harder for them to be destroyed over time.

It also led to it being possible for everyone, from businesspersons to just your regular, average, everyday computer users to create a PDF from their documents.  

And, as was most important to Warnock and his Camelot Project, those documents were then readable on any machine, regardless of the operating system. 

With advances like the introduction of PDF/A, a more advanced version of the original PDF, the product become even more universal. According to Appligent Document Solutions marketing specialist Shawna McAlearney:

“Everything that is required to render the document the exact same way, every time, is contained in the PDF/A file: fonts, color profiles, images etc. PDF/A is also an ISO standard, guaranteeing that future software generations will know how to open and render PDF/A files.”  

The PDF effectively changed the entire technological industry in the 1990s. While PDFs are still largely the same as they were when they first debuted, there have been some important innovations in the past few years, the most notable of which is Adobe’s Liquid Mode.

To keep up with the changing times, Adobe used artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a product that makes it easier to read PDFs on mobile phones and tablets, bringing this nearly thirty-year-old technology into the future with even more potential than it had before. 

Instead of becoming obsolete, the PDF has adapted to the modern age, which continues to put this technology in the hands of even more people on a daily basis. 

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Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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