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Are pdf files dumb?

© August 2013 Tony Lawrence

(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.

Does this need to be PDF?

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 care..

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 exposure.

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

Update 2013:

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?

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Inexpensive and informative Apple related e-books:

Take Control of High Sierra

Take Control of Parallels Desktop 12

Take Control of IOS 11

Take Control of Pages

Digital Sharing Crash Course

More Articles by © Tony Lawrence

Mon Aug 19 15:16:35 2013: 12265   anonymous


> So - do I need an attitude adjustment? Should I stop thumping my old man
> cane and accept PDF's on the Web?

I don't think so. I could hardly be called "old" ("old" doesn't start in my family until you are *at least* 75), but I have already developed a curmudgeonly attitude toward those execrable things. While most of your original points have been addressed in some form or fashion in the last decade, there are still the issues of usability and security.

When I visit a website, I go there with a specific goal in mind. I want to perform a quick surgical strike. I have neither the time, interest, or patience for an extended campaign. Don't interrupt my momentum by forcing me to download an extra gubbin and leave the browser, or dump me into some awkward PDF viewer plugin where my shortcuts do not work. I firmly believe that all the data should exist in HTML and that PDF should just be used as a convenient way to download and save that information.

There is also the issue of security. PDFs, along with Java and Flash, seem to be part of the unholy trifecta of browser exploits. It feels like you cannot go two months without some new exploit. If it is not a buffer overflow in the plugin, or a binary blob bodged in a malformed xref table, it is something put in the PDF spec *by design* (Active content/Javascript in PDFs?! Seriously?)

Mon Aug 19 15:24:09 2013: 12266   TonyLawrence


The security stuff seems to be Adobe. They must hire really bad programmers - probably well trained by Microsoft in the sloppiest techniques?

Yeah, I know, that's harsh. Programming is hard and you can run afoul of os stuff that really isn't your fault.

But still, Adobe seems to screw up a lot..


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