Thursday, February 1, 2007

Adobe’s PDF as an Open Standard?

[PDF logo]I was travelling, but this week’s big standards news is that Adobe announced it will submit its PDF file format for approval as a de jure standard by the ISO — not directly, but through a friendly trade association. (Yes, I know, this week Microsoft is also starting the half billion dollar roll out of its long-delayed maintenance release).

Some have speculated that the timing is driven by Microsoft’s introduction of the competing XPS format with Vista this week. I don’t follow either Microsoft or Adobe closely enough to add anything to the speculation — I’m a researcher on open source and mobile phones who has been Mac-only for the past 23 years.

As I said before, there are two tests for an open standard:

  • Is there an open process? Adobe claims others will be able to suggest changes to the standard.
  • Is there an open outcome? In this case, that would mean non-licensed implementations of players and generators on par with Adobe’s.
It turns out that Adobe has released various revisions and subsets of the PDF spec since that spec was published as a 1993 book, and there have also been a few competing implementations.

Still, it seems like “open” doesn’t seem to come naturally to Adobe on PDF. CEO Bruce Chizen said in a 2001 interview about Apple’s independent implementation of PDF in its recently-released OS X (10.0.0):
We continue to work closely with them to give them some indication of what we are doing, because we want to try to have compatibility, but you can probably expect that the PDF created from an Adobe application like Acrobat is always going to be richer than Apple's implementation of PDF.
Certainly Apple’s implementation lags Adobe’s updates to the spec: Adobe is standardizing version 1.7 of the spec while Apple’s 10.4.x (“Tiger”) is only at version 1.2. Is this because outsiders get the spec after Adobe? Because Adobe issues gratuitous changes to the spec to make downward compatibility harder? Because it’s hard to implement a PDF writer or reader? Or because it’s a low priority for Apple? I don’t know, but so far I haven’t seen any need for the features after Acrobat 4.0 (PDF 1.2).

I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of shopping for a friendly association to carry standardization forward. It’s a common approach used by proprietary firms to get an officially blessed standard while retaining de facto control of the standardization process. OTOH, Adobe has reason to be concerned about losing control. As my friend Tineke Egyedi wrote in 2004, Sun created Java but when it (twice) tried to make it a public standard it got blindsided by its industry rivals in the standardization committees.

When it comes to the promise of an “open” PDF format, both forms of openness will only be clear over time. IMHO everyone should start out naturally skeptical about proprietary companies claiming to be open. IBM's decision to open source what became Eclipse is a rare example where the reality matched the hype.

Andy Updegrove is more positive on this than I am. Who knows which one of us will be right in the long run?

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