One of the most popular document formats on the planet, Portable Document Format (PDF), is due for a makeover next year. So what is it we can expect?

File formats such as PDF and Tagged Image File Format (TIFF) are the lingua franca of the computer world.  Many other formats are controlled by vendors, which competitors don’t want to be seen supporting, which only helps drive the use of PDF and TIFF.

The result is that more than 2.5 trillion PDFs are created every year, according to the BPI Network report Dealing With Document Deluge and Danger. “Documents and PDFs are practically interchangeable in the minds of most knowledge workers today,” the study notes. “Some 90 percent of survey respondents describe themselves and their co-workers as PDF-dependent, almost as many as those who say they are document-dependent (93 percent).”

“This makes PDFs the most widely used document format in the world with vendors in many other business technology spaces looking to convert documents to industry-standard PDF and PDF/A files from a wide range of source file formats,” writes David Roe in CMSwire.

Originally developed by Adobe Systems, the PDF specification was made available free of charge in 1993. PDF was a proprietary format controlled by Adobe, until it was officially released as an open standard on July 1, 2008, and published by the International Organization for Standardization as ISO 32000-1:2008. At that time, control of the specification passed to an ISO Committee of volunteer industry experts. In 2008, Adobe published a Public Patent License to ISO 32000-1 granting royalty-free rights for all patents owned by Adobe that were necessary to make, use, sell, and distribute PDF-compliant implementations.

Because the PDF specification is seen as vendor-neutral, and includes interactive PDF features such as fillable forms and hyperlinks that connect PDF files to web content, PDF can reduce or eliminate paper processes in the business workplace, Roe writes. Organizations can use PDF instead of paper as a communications vehicle for interactions with customers, vendors and partners, he adds.

Work is underway with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to enhance the PDF specification. Originally scheduled to be released in 2013, and most recently updated in July, the specification is now scheduled to be released in 2016, with implementation in 2017, according to Gary McGrath in the Mad File Format Science blog. “The biggest task right now is removing ambiguities,” he writes. “The specification’s language will shift from describing conforming readers and writers to describing a valid file.”

New capabilities in PDF 2.0 are scheduled to include the following:

  • A number of enhancements around “tagged PDF,” or meta-information around groups of PDF instructions inside a page content; in addition to more explicitly defining page structure, tagged PDF makes PDF more accessible to disabled users, one of the criticisms of today’s PDF
  • More explicit instructions having to do with printing.
  • An unencrypted wrapper for encrypted data to help users determine whether they’ll be able to decrypt it
  • Extensions for interactive features such as annotations
  • Incorporated support for existing extensions such as multimedia, geospatial data, and 3D

The committee also had a September 30 deadline for accepting other suggested enhancements for PDF 2.0, which will be discussed at the next meeting, in Sydney in late November. Some are calling for an even more advanced version of the specification to better support workflow—an “Analytical Document Format,” if you will.

“Embedded document traceability and trackability could significantly address key challenges,” according to the BPI Network report. “If a document could be easily registered in the cloud with an identification and then tracked in terms of where it goes, who opens and edits it, what changes are made, and so on, critical business documents could be more secure, trusted, and locatable.”

In fact, 77 percent of survey respondents said being able to track receipt, readership and location of documents would be valuable to their work. Benefits would include:

  • Ensuring the integrity and trust of each document
  • Improving conformance with policies and regulations
  • Easier removal of outdated documents from circulation
  • Intellectual property protection and control over who sees it

Other features survey participants mentioned included features that improved the user’s ability to:

  • Retrieve a document
  • Refresh or update a document
  • Notify others of changes to a document
  • Track who is opening or editing a document

Future versions of the PDF specification will also enable PDFs to carry their own identity and communicate at the application programming interface (API) level with cloud services, Roe writes. “In three to five years, it will evolve to a state where PDFs will really drive modern collaboration and workflow,” he writes.

The most important part? Ensuring that PDF and TIFF documents continue to be readable in the future.  “Fifty years from now, are you going to be able to pull the document up and is it going to look the same?” writes Christina Cardoza in SD Times.

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