The PDF file format’s success is an excellent example of how a product can become a technical standard. Anyone looking to invest or build a new technology hoping to be a standard can learn a lot from history. The PDF was competing with several file formats in the early 1990s including Envoy, Common Ground Digital Paper, DjVu and Envoy. (Referring to the question).
The PDF was created to solve a simple, but crucial problem. A PDF appeared the same wherever it was opened, regardless of what device it was being used. Portable Document Format is the acronym for this. This was a significant breakthrough in a world with poor font recognition. The PDF file format was the first to allow a document to be shared electronically and retain all of its original formatting. The sender can be sure that the recipient can read the PDF if he or she sends it. This seems trivial today, as cross-device reading of many file formats isn’t a major issue.
The PDF file was not successful because of its technical prowess. It succeeded because Adobe’s strategic vision. There are strong arguments to support the claim that other file formats were more technically superior than the PDF. Adobe Reader was initially priced at $50 in 1993.
However, Adobe quickly realized that this was a mistake and offered the product for free the following year. Adobe Reader was quickly adopted by users because it was free to download (unlike other competitors). Adobe Reader was downloaded more than 100,000,000 times from the internet by 1999. The PDF quickly became a popular worldwide standard.
Then there was PDF
It was the 90s, and Adobe was doing well. Aside from the Systems department, which managed the Postscript business, there was also an Applications group that had Illustrator and Photoshop.
John Warnock thought that all documents that were ever printed or would ever be printed could be represented as a document. This idea was not unreasonable, as Postscript was specifically designed for this purpose. Adobe also had code from Illustrator that could handle fonts and graphics. Photoshop code was available to display images. Warnok decided to start a project called the Carousel Project, in order to realize his dream of having all of the Library of Congress represented electronically.
At first, he was unable to get any help from the programmers in the application division (Mike Pell, Ken Grant, and Mike Diamond). Eric Zocker, the head of the division, noticed that the project was slowing down and decided to step in. The search began for a programmer who could take over the project.
Alan Tracey Wootton was a programmer at JPL who had moved to full-time programming. He wanted to move to Silicon Valley and leave LA. He was offered the job and moved to Cupertino.
The demo was soon completed and a team was formed to create UI for all platforms – Mac OS, Windows DOS and ‘nix. The code for the demo was converted to cross-platform code, which handles most of the internal data structures required to support the UI projects. Print-drivers were also written by people to allow users to print documents on any platform.
The original demos were now rewritten into a file format which would include the fonts, vector graphics and images. This would be the second format for the project. There were some requirements that weren’t being met. There were requirements such as forward and backwards compatibility and streaming large documents through a driver printer.
The printer driver doesn’t know how many pages are in the document. It also needs to be possible to open a 1000-page document and jump to the 500th without having to read the entire file.
Peter Hibberd had created a demo of an “object-oriented file format”. Richard Cohn, Alan Wootton and others began to work to adapt his work to the Carousel project. After several weeks of hard work, it was determined that adapting his work would be more difficult than writing new code. Also, some of the ‘object-oriented’ concepts weren’t applicable as it was becoming clear that a key value format was needed. This was the third format.
Bob Wulff was the manager of the project and told Richard and Alan to “go away” and not return until there was a format. Richard and Alan met at Richard’s Menlo Park house instead of meeting in Mountain View, where Google is now. Richard and Alan had already discussed data structures and concepts on several pieces of paper by the end of Thursday. Alan returned to Adobe Monday morning with the fourth file format and the current code. This file format was later known as PDF.