Who Created the PDF?

Create, send, open, and view. Across devices and operating systems, hassle-free. This is what everyone expects today, whether they’re creating a high-end fashion magazine in New York City or emailing a lawn mower user manual to a neighbor in Omaha. The Portable Document Format – better known as PDF – is often behind much of this seamless sharing. Most users don’t really know the magic that’s behind this quiet, reliable technology or why it was created.

As Adobe’s Senior Vice President of Cloud Technology, Bob Wulff, describes it, “PDF allows the user to view a file precisely—down to the pixel, essentially, of what the author had intended.”

In the early 1990s, before Adobe co-founder John Warnock and an elite team codenamed Camelot got to work on their new file format, things weren’t so easy. Mac, Windows, UNIX, and MS DOS all had their own way of doing things and interpreting files. It wasn’t pretty.

Want to move a file created in Windows to a Mac? Your sales report would likely have looked like Jackson Pollock got a hold of it. Warnock saw a better way.

According to Leonard Rosenthol, PDF Architect at Adobe, Warnock and his team sought to fix “the inability to exchange information between machines, between systems, between users in a way that ensured that the file would look the same everywhere it went.”

And one of the first steps towards the solution came in 1990 with Warnock’s “Camelot Report,” a written articulation of what he felt were some of the problems in computing at the time. Warnock eventually recruited the help of Wulff to help craft an early demo. Although Warnock’s vision might have been prescient, the decision to work with Wulff, who has remained with the company for twenty-five years, seems more like a right time, right place situation. In fact, Warnock literally ran into him in the hallway.

“He was looking for a Windows programmer to produce a demo for IBM, and he bumped into me,” recalls Wulff. A team was formed, and the product was finally ready to be formally unveiled in the fall of 1991.

“We held a company-wide demo in the Mountain View building B lunchroom [of Adobe],” says Wulff, “back when the entire company could fit in the lunchroom. We demoed viewing files. We even gave the entire company a T-shirt. This project was for real.”

Version 1.0 of Adobe Acrobat, the first software program capable of reading the newly created format known as PDF, eventually launched on June 15, 1993, with an accompanying 8-page ad in The Wall Street Journal. Despite the hype, the new format and related tools didn’t rocket toward widespread adoption. This was for several possible reasons, including that the first version was only available as a paid product, as opposed to the current free download of Acrobat Reader, and file download times in the mid-90s were still incredibly slow.

Over much of the next decade, Adobe released several versions and added many new features, like allowing developers to create plugins, displaying files within web browsers, and creating form functionality with buttons and check boxes. But despite years of changes and improvements to PDF, it was the care that went into the original work that provided a robust foundation for all later iterations.

“They clearly had the vision, whether they knew it or not, about that long-term direction,” says Rosenthol of the early Acrobat team.

A milestone came in 2007, when the PDF format was released into the care of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Since then, the ISO has controlled specifications for PDF, with Adobe advising the ISO team to offer technical input.

Although PDF has been a remarkably elegant solution since its inception, Rosenthol sees further possibilities for the future of the format and Adobe Acrobat—starting with the newly unveiled Adobe Acrobat DC (Document Cloud), which includes, among other innovations, e-signature support, a touch-enabled interface, and advanced font-synthesizing capacities. Recent innovations have also enabled PDFs to support 3D.

“Probably the biggest thing that we’re thinking about a lot right now is PDF in the context of mobile,” he says. “So certainly PDF works just fine on mobile devices, but is it possible to make PDF better on mobile devices than it is today? If so, how do you do that?”

If Acrobat DC’s new Mobile Link and powerful new Mobile Apps are any indication, Rosenthol and his colleagues are already well on their way to finding the answers.

Read more about what’s included in Adobe Acrobat DC here.