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From radical workflow concept to mature standard

Apr 1, 2011 12:00 AM

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In the late 1990s, John Harrison and Michael Jahn, then with Agfa, gave many people their first glimpse of a PDF-powered workflow. Their evangelism included a book, video interviews with industry leaders, and a 50-city tour with speakers from Adobe and Agfa.

“Agfa's Peter Broderick with Patrick Gypen, Connie Ohlsten and Christel Van den Eynde helped us develop an unprecedented program,” recalls Harrison. “Adobe helped in every way we asked.”

PDF lacked high-end production tools until Adobe's 1996 release of Acrobat 3.0 and PDF 1.2. “[It] seemed to have all the imaging features we needed,” Harrison says. “PDF, itself, was built to be a stripped down form of PostScript (PS). The idea was to create a document in whatever app you wanted, then output the file in PS as if to drive a printer. In turn, the PS code was ‘distilled’ into PDF, a simple, resolved and self-contained version of PS. It contained everything needed (like fonts) to image the content exactly as intended, but the PDF remained device independent; a single file could be used to output on screen, printer, imagesetter or digital press.”

Harrison credits his boss, Etienne Van Damme , as a key change agent. “He gave our project full support and backed us when the unconventional move took heat.”

The gang that set PDF straight

People from 10 printing companies guided PDF workflow development. “[Agfa's] Rick Littrell invited a lot of us to ask about what the minimum requirements might be for a platesetter,” Jahn recalls. “Most of us were from Donnelley, American Color and many [subsequent] World Color/Quebecor acquisitions. [These were] prepress pros who recognized that reliable exchange was key — and that got Adobe's attention. We started meeting with Adobe and helped define what Acrobat 3 would be.”

Last-minute changes

Flexible approaches to content alteration remain on Harrison's PDF wish list. “We had expected that some Adobe apps would use PDF as their file format,” he explains. “Or, that at least a version of Acrobat would have allowed much more editing to [fix] late changes.”

PDF made an immediate and enduring impact on the graphic arts. “Files ran faster with far fewer font and imaging problems,” say Harrison. “That only got better over time. It delivered much of what we hoped and became the industry production standard.”

One file, many uses

Harrison has been with Tecnavia for the past three years. “We take PDF files and make electronic editions of publications for reading via a web browser and mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone,” he explains. “I am working with PDFs as digital masters to make new products.”

Filling in the gaps

PDF was conceived as a business communication tool rather than a vehicle for producing reliable files for printers and their customers. “Agfa had to invent and build what was missing, as did Creo, Screen and Fuji,” says Jahn, now with prepress software developer Compose Systems.

PDF, once considered a radical approach to production workflow, has grown up. “It's used in many industries,” says Jahn. “It is mature and now an ISO standard. Adobe applications can export reliable PDF/X files for print, if only the user would set up things properly. PDF is the standard to beat for the exchange of complex documents. I do not see anything on the horizon that comes close.”

Next up: validation for viewers

PDF might be ubiquitous, but there's still work to be done. “Many industries are using PDF files as an alternative to exchanging documents,” says Jahn. “[We need] application notes to specify methods for validating the conformance of PDF files or readers/viewers.”