The Future of PDF

PDF was introduced about 20 years ago by Adobe as a follow up on Postscript. Since the initial introduction of the PDF standard many new features have been added such as the ability to include data entry, interactivity, animations, e-mailing and hyperlink. It is 2012, what will propel the PDF? I will talk a bit about the basics of PDF and what I think will be the future.


Initially, Portable Document Format (PDF) did not have the success anticipated. This was mostly due to the fact that Adobe tools were needed if you wanted to do anything with the PDFs. The usage of the PDF standard increased dramatically once Adobe made their PDF viewer (Acrobat Reader) freely available. With a freely available PDF viewer the pre-press industry picked up on the PDF standard for document exchange. In order to get reliable results from this exchange a set of requirements was drawn up that ensured that the print buyer and the print service provider could use a PDF file as a contract of what the printed result should look like.  This spawned the creation of the first ISO standard that defines requirements for the use of PDF documents in a particular environments or workflow. Eventually Adobe decided to hand over the PDF specification itself for ISO standardization which resulted in the ISO 32000 specification that was released in 2008.


Currently, we have 5 sets of ISO specifications: PDF/X, PDF/A, PDF/E, PDF/UA and PDF/VT.

PDF/X (eXchange) is designed for the print industry. This subset of PDF specializes in assuring that a document will print as it looks like on screen. These include provisions for fonts, colour, images etc.

PDF/A (ARCHIVING) was designed primarily for archiving purposes. Early on, the PDF format was adopted over other formats (TIFF, JPEG) for its’ size, image quality, and searchability.  This standard assures usability of the document over time (font inclusion, no dependability on external resources, metadata requirements, etc.)

PDF/E (ENGINEERING) This standard defines a format for the creation of documents used in engineering workflow and is based on the PDF Reference version 1.6 from Adobe Systems. PDF/E is a subset of PDF designed to be an open and neutral exchange format for engineering and technical documentation.

PDF/UA (UNIVERSAL ACCESS). It is designed for universal accessible PDFs. Basically this format is designed to give information on how to read the document for people with visual impairments. The information is used by assistive technology such as screen readers. The PDF/UA standard will give information to the “reader” (i.e. software) on how to read, let’s say, a 2 column document so that it makes it comprehensible and provides information about images in the document.

PDF/VT (VARIABLE TRANSACTION). This standard leverages the PDF standard for variable data printing. This includes transactional documents such as invoices and statements that integrates billing information with marketing information.


PDF/VT was introduced in 2010, and stands for “PDF for exchange of variable data and transactional (VT) printing”. As the description ‘exchange’ suggests, it is based upon PDF/X with all of its benefits. In that respect, PDF/VT is not the first PDF based technology aimed at Variable Data Printing. PPML too uses PDF as the source for objects to be printed.

PDF/VT supports the entire PDF imaging model as supported in PDF/X-4 and PDF/X-5 variants including all transparency blending modes, layers, etc. None of the other VDP standards support this full imaging model. Even the recently released PPML-3 specification only supports a small subset of transparency. Moreover, PDF/VT has additional mark-up information that states that certain content (image, form, etc) is reusable and can be cached, even in a transparency case, hence, PDF/VT will enable high performance rendering of graphically rich content for printing on high-speed digital presses by caching repeated text and graphics.

Other important features of PDF/VT standard are the inclusion of metadata for address information and document boundaries (which pages belong with each other). As an example, the address info metadata enables the possibility to sort jobs on address routes leading to eventual benefits from postal discounts. Information on document boundaries enables subset finishing (i.e. stapling) on a document level instead of on the job level. That means you do not need to manually find the beginning and end of documents after all the printing.

Workflows based on PDF/VT will deliver all the well-known benefits of PDF print production and work well for variable data printing  jobs. By working seamlessly into existing PDF-based prepress operations, PDF/VT enables a single common PDF print production workflow for all job types.


PDF is already the standard in the pre-process world and with the addition of PDF/VT and PDF/A standards PDF is bound to become the standard in the variable data printing industry as well, displacing vendor specific technologies (such as VPS, FreeForm and VIPP) and industry standards such as PPML/GA.

Software vendors can easily adapt to the new PDF/VT standards whereas hardware vendors will have a harder time doing so. Currently printer manufactures have a basic rip with PostScript technology so they have to start from the beginning. Mostly, everything has to be recoded This could take some time, but all the major vendors are committed to going that route so hang tight.

That means not all hardware will support this format but how can you tell? Important questions to ask hardware vendors are ones about implementations of metadata and full transparency modes for these have a direct impact on printing performance and the access the printers subset features as well document manipulation.

***This entry was taken from a public presentation by Dr Paul Jones done at drupa 2012 in the Objectif Lune booth.***