PDF-free zone

PDF-free site

What is PDF?

PDF is a format for presenting documents on computers. It is quite similar to photographic document storage techniques used by libraries such as microfiche and film-strips to condense a year of newspapers down to one roll of 35mm film, with one spread per frame.

The creation and reading of PDF files require programmes only available from Adobe as the Acrobat suite. The reader is free but the PDF generator software must be bought.

Good Points

The system allows documents existing on paper to be easily made available via computer systems in the form of a photo-copied book.

This suits publishers of large amounts of data who may be tied to producing a paper version anyway, such as Parliaments, and organisations that have a huge history on paper, such as semiconductor datasheets. In such cases PDF generation can be highly automated.

The format allows the publisher a very high degree of control over how the information is presented to the viewer, and offers a degree of data integrity that the reader sees what the publisher intended.

It can also allow free read-only access but still prevent easy abstraction of text or graphics from the document, thus providing the publisher with some copyright and usage control.

Not so good points

But some of these advantages can be disadvantages from the document user end.


PDF can extend the publisher's control over what the end user can do with a document. It is quite possible to publish an open PDF document where text and graphics can be abstracted, but it seems that the default is to keep documents canned up - read-only, and disallow copy-paste.

Australian Copyright Law gives the right to quote and abstact small portions of a document for review or commentry under fair dealing provisions. Un-abstractable PDF's undermine that right by preventing it.


PDF's are time-consuming. To read a PDF requires that you first download and install the latest version of the reader. It's free, but it's about 4 Megs last I looked so it's not a small download.

On line they are time consuming because the PDF reader must be loaded over the browser before you can see the document. Then the whole document has to be loaded before you see anything. On one occasion I was forced to download a 350+ page Council annual report just to see one useless paragraph. They encourage a poor, or no, segmentation of data which is needed for speedy access.

Versions are under constant upgrade. This means that PDF's created with the latest version may not be readable in readers that are still fairly young.

Participant or observer?

PDF's are not bi-lateral. The reader may be free, but the generator costs.

Before computers the people who published stuff owned printing plants and radio and TV transmitters.

Then came the MacinToy and DTP and suddenly everyone could publish. Since then top-down systems have been making a protracted rearguard action, trying to preserve their position of dominance of the public arena. But the Internet cat is now well out of the bag and we are already in the post-Napster era.

For decades record companies were exactly that. They sold records, which they made with their big pressing plants and the like. Look in any music or video store and you may notice that they don't actually sell music or movies as such.

For all their belated whining about “intellectual product”, what they actually sell, or hire, is plastic in various forms, tapes and disks. And before that it was paper in the form of sheet music.

In fact never in the whole history of the so-called music industry has it ever actually sold music - it sold the media that carried the music.

This is a very basic collision between old and new ways of thinking. Old media such as news, magazines, music, and film producers who make their living out of putting an ephemeral product - information, a performance - onto a media, then selling you the media as an object.

Computers and the nets make a nonsense of this whole way of doing things by giving informational products an environment that is more natural to them, effectively free of the constraints of physical media, sometimes called Cyberspace or the datasphere.

In this environment PDF is old thinking, an attempt to make computer documents conform to the idea of a physical book. Some other examples of old thinking include the 8-Track play-only cartrage, Viatel 1200/75 modems, Newspapers, TV, cripple-ware MP3's, MPEG's, page-stalling Flash animations, and the RIAA confronted by a media-less future.

New thinking is bi-lateral, such as Zip files which anyone can create with a range of free tools, and which have remained stable and accessable for many years now.

PDF will eventually die because other more stable and open and therefore useful formats will eventually dominate, and thousands of documents will become stranded in an obsolete and unreadable format. I have databooks that are still in daily use thirty years after they were published, but I wonder how many PDF datasheets will still be readable after thirty years.

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