Are pdf files dumb?
(The first part of this was written in 2000)
I certainly agree with this. PDF is great if you really need it, but I see far too much PDF used where HTML would have been a better choice because there
was no need to control the display. PDF requires another program (even if it is configured to run as part of your browser, it is still another program) and is harder to edit and search.
I think you also need to consider the importance and urgency
of the information. If the document in question contains
information on the sonnets of some obscure French poet, it
may not be a burden to require extra software to read it.
Where I get really teed off is when technical articles are
presented in pdf or other formats that require third party
software. If your Mac is barely running, and is crashing at
the slightest provocation, the last thing you need is to
have to run Acrobat to read about what might be causing your
problem. Straight HTML can be read (not prettily, but
certainly accurately) with nothing more than telnet working-
no IE, no Netscape, and certainly no Acrobat.
There is also the issue of speed. I may not care how long
it takes to download the French Poets page, but when I'm
stuck with a 14.4 modem because it's the only working piece
of junk available at 9:00 PM at a broken customer's site,
and I need information from your technical site, I will not
be happy to see pdf as my only choice.
Another good general rule is that people shouldn't have to
download anything to view your site. They may not have
space, they may not have time, or (again) there just may not
be a version that runs on their OS.
I had a funny (!) conversation recently with someone who
designs web pages. He was showing off his home page, and I
noted that he made heavy use of Java. I questioned that,
noting that people with 56K dialups would be frustrated by
the slowness. He said that was exactly his intention,
because his company also sells DSL! So the concept is that
his customers will be convinced to get a high speed
connection to properly view the pages this guy designs for
him. I pointed out that this attitude doesn't do much for
the ultimate readers of his customer's pages, but he didn't
So, it does depend on what kind of documents you are
presenting and whether you care if some people can't read
them or have difficulty. I have no idea what kind of
documents you are putting out there or for what purposes,
but a "it's their problem" attitude may be appropriate- or
then again, it may not. I certainly know it is not
appropriate for technical sites (yet it is done) and it's
probably not wise for any site trying to maximize their
Subject: Re: dumb pdf files
> I'm reading your Corel Linux Deluxe review and was surprised by the
> "those dumb pdf files that web morons put up on their sites"
> statement. We've started using pdf with increasing frequency to
> distribute documents. I'm curious as to how moronic we are.
The problem is that pdf's requre a separate viewer- Acrobat
Reader. If the documents really need to be pdf, that's
fine, but if not it is harmful in several ways:
o It requires that extra reader that isn't necessarily
available on the platform the user has, either because Adobe
chooses not to compile for that platform (they won't compile
a SCO vesrion, for example) or because the reader is using a
strictly text based browser such as Lynx or one of the teeny
browsers starting to be built into cell phones and PDA's.
There *are* other programs that can sometimes do a
half-assed job of reading pdf's, but because Adobe keeps
changing it, those programs have marginal use.
o That extra reader of course requires more computer
resources, and on marginal equipment owned by the less
wealthy parts of the populace, may run horribly or not at
(Update: today's computers are so fast this barely matters.)
o Search engines index text. Anything withing PDF's is not
going to be indexed by any engine I'm currently aware of,
and therefore remains effectively invisible to web searches.
(Update: that's no longer true: File types indexable by Google.)
o Visually handicapped people can easily find programs to
read straight html, but pdf's present a greater challenge.
I'm not sure anything is available, and if it is, I bet it's
only for Windows (a platform that more and more of us choose
not to run except when absolutely necessary).
(Update: also no longer true: NVA Access and GUADALINFO ACCESSIBLE PROJECT.)
Of course, there are advantages to pdf's, and if you really
need that precise formatting, then you should continue to
use them. However, I'd still recommend an alternate
straight HTML/GIF version be produced for the reasons given
The problems of some people being unable to read PDF's still exist,
though it's far less common today. Although many of my original reasons for disliking PDF have gone away, I still cringe when I see
something that easily could be html (or worse, plain text!) presented as a PDF.
Fortunately, I don't see it all that often. My fear when I wrote this
was that PDF abuse would become more common, and in some cases it has (technical documentation has drifted strongly to PDF) but it has not generally over run the Web.
Here in 2013 (this article was first written in 2000) I'm not sure
that my dislike is justified. I found Advantages and disadvantges of PDF and many other matches when I googled for "disadvantage of pdf", but many of these are as out of date as this page was. For example, many will confidently state that there is no Linux PDF viewer, but that's definitely not true..
So - do I need an attitude adjustment? Should I stop thumping my old man cane and accept PDF's on the Web?
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