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PDFs Suck

2006-08-02 14:01:34.16016+00 by Dan Lyke 9 comments

PDF is the FAX of the '00s. Just as back in the '90s the people who actually had it together were using email and the clueless salesdorks were using FAXes, we're seeing similar things today. If I want to use paper, I'll print it out, but we're thirty years after the introduction of personal computers, and paper is mostly just an annoyance.

You can't search the damned things, at least not efficiently. You can't copy and paste from them. You can't sort lists or deal with tabular data in them in any meaningful way. They're just the suckiest suck that ever sucked.

And Adobe's PDF to Text converter... well... I gave it simple 4 page file, one font, just some lists of people and roles, this morning it still claims to be cranking away. And of course the Mac didn't have anything on it that seemed helpful. Luckily my Ubuntu machine had pdf2text on it, which didn't do a great job, all of the tables in the document came out garbled, but some time with Emacs[Wiki] and I managed to get it under control.

PDF is good for one thing: An intermediate format where you can't talk directly to the printer. You know, kind of what PostScript was supposed to be. Please don't use it for anything else.

[ related topics: Macintosh Typography Graphic Design Linux ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-02 14:11:07.184087+00 by: petronius

Madame Petronius is beginning to teach a training class for her organization, the IRS. It is a new curriculum for Revenue agents, and is suffering the usual glitces of any new curriculum. However, the one that is causing the students to moan is that they are giving them the 2-inch thick double sided text on CD, using PDF. Which means they can't make notes in the margin. I have suggested that they all trudge over to Kinko's and get copies printed up on the high-speed LaserJet. Sometimes, paper is the best solution. Other times, digital media is best. The can also carry the entire Federal Tax code around with them without needing a wheelbarrow.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-02 14:23:50.249334+00 by: Dan Lyke

If they'd gotten the file as something machine readable, even the dreaded .doc format, they could mark-up the document directly. With PDF the only option is to walk over to Kinko's.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-02 14:34:52.422503+00 by: Larry Burton

I've found PDFs to be good for things that one doesn't want easily edited. I send POs to vendors in PDF format and save a copy of the file to my project directory. I print my timesheets from a spreadsheet in PDF format and turn that in along with storing a copy in my timesheet directory. After functional specs and scopes of work are written and agreed to they are printed off in PDF format for easy distribution and you don't have to worry about your average person changing the agreement on you.

Yeah, paper is great sometimes but I've found PDFs do have their place. The problem is people use them for things that they shouldn't be used for.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-02 15:01:27.568595+00 by: DaveP [edit history]

Actually, you can mark up PDF. Just have to use Acrobat Reader (I'm pretty sure the free version will still let you "comment"). Not saying it's a great format (I'm with Bruce Tognazzini in worshipping at the Church of PDF Really Sucks"), but it's not quite as useless as you make out.

For that matter, I'm still forced to use my fax a few times a year, since there still isn't a good electronic signature format that everyone trusts.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-02 17:19:57.392153+00 by: ebradway

I've been using PDF more and more lately too. I prefer it over DOC format - mostly because Reader loads a little faster than Word (but not much!).

A client I just finished working with actually sends out all contracts as PDF forms and converted the forms I faxed back to them signed, into PDF. Nice because I can keep everything related to that client in one place.

However, I have encountered PDFs with tables and text "locked" so I couldn't copy and paste out of them. I found myself hand-entering meth lab seizure data for every county in Tennessee because the Meth Lab Task Force felt the need to lock the data in the PDF.

I really think PDF is the offspring of PostScript. Internally, I believe it uses PostScript as the layout language. However, PostScript was designed to be a layout language whereas PDF is trying to be a document exchange format. So, PostScript wouldn't give you markups in columns but Acrobat Standard will (per Adobe.com: "Use familiar review and commenting tools including highlighter, sticky notes, pen and more!").

The real problem is that Adobe gives away Reader. It's pretty much guaranteed to be on every machine in existence in one form or another. Reader is a seriously stripped down version of Acrobat. We've all pretty much given into the Microsoft juggernaut and bought copies of Word (or just live with the inconsistnecies in OpenOffice), so we balkwhen Adobe hits us up for another $299 for "Acrobat Standard." Afterall, we've already invested in one document editor (Word).

I've installed the Ghostscript PDF print driver in WinXP and use it as my "default printer" on the laptop. The great thing is I have a consistent printer available to all applications that I can output a document to no matter what network I'm on (like if I need to "print" something off the web at a coffee shop). Like Larry, it gives me a way to create a snapshot of a document that I can expect to remain as static as a fax or a mailed piece of paper. And I can create PDFs or free (but still can't mark them up).

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-03 01:34:03.935773+00 by: warkitty

That's why I love the stuff I'm pedaling to CVBs for their visitors guides. 5-10 day turnaround to put a book into a flash based document that's got internal keyword searching, prints clean, available online but can be saved to the hard drive for offline viewing....

It may not be cost effective for small print projects, but damn. For 32 pages with all the good tracking and usability we've got a damn good price, and magazines etc are starting to hop on the bandwagon and this for distribution.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-03 14:21:46.361498+00 by: petronius

The problem with offering the data in .doc format is that you can change the main text as well as add comments, and with highly technical data that possibility is dangerous.

Asto ebradway's comment "I found myself hand-entering meth lab seizure data for every county in Tennessee because the Meth Lab Task Force felt the need to lock the data in the PDF."

If you'd been tweaking it would have gone faster!

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-06 17:24:28.345471+00 by: baylink

PDF is doing exactly what it was designed to do. That just isn't what some people want. You're right that some people don't *realize* the restrictions they're putting on the data they ship around in PDF, but that's their fault, not the format's.

And yes, PDFs encapsulate PostScript.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-10 19:05:58.155424+00 by: brennen

I think that if PDFs were being used purely as a document exchange format for stuff that's likely to be printed, I wouldn't have too many problems. I've been using the format for distribution and printing of a little poetry book I've been working on, and in that context the format is useful. Unfortunately, they're becoming enough of a standard on the web that I constantly see stuff available exclusively in PDF which should clearly be in plaintext of some kind. I think Adobe should take some heat for promoting uses like this.