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    PDF is a file format developed by Adobe Systems and is evolving technology often used by graphic artists, designers and publishers.

    What is PDF? Short for Portable Document Format, PDF is a file format developed by Adobe Systems. PDF captures formatting information from a variety of desktop publishing applications making it possible to send documents and have them appear on the recipient’s monitor (or printer) as they were intended to be viewed.

    Why Use PDF

    A properly prepared PDF will maintain the original fonts, images, graphics as well as the exact layout of the file (think of it as an electronic snapshot). A PDF file can be shared, viewed, and printed by anyone using the free Adobe Reader software regardless of the operating system, original design application or fonts.

    Originally PDF was mostly used by graphic artists, designers and publishers for producing color page proofs. With its evolving technology, however, today PDF is used for virtually any data that needs to be exchanged among applications and users. It is an open file format specification and PDF is available to anyone who wants to develop tools to create, view or manipulate PDF documents.

    If you haven’t been involved in designing or distributing PDF files directly, your first introduction to PDF technology may well have been a hyperlink on a Web page. When you click the link, Adobe Reader either launches the file or informs you need to download and install Adobe Reader to view the file. Because a PDF is independent of the application or platform used to create it, it has become a popular way to distribute and share documents via the Internet. For many who use Adobe Reader only in association with Web browsing, you may think PDF is something which is relatively new definitely not so.

    The Evolution of PDF

    While the idea behind the format was tossed around as early as 1984, it wasn’t until 1993 that Adobe launched its Acrobat 1.0 (and PDF 1.0) product line. Those first Acrobat products were touted as being “a PostScript-based file format that can describe documents in a completely device and resolution independent manner.” Initially ideas of CD-based books and magazines surfaced. Imagine being able to walk into a bookstore and read a portion of a book on PDF before purchasing.

    PDF and the Acrobat software was a new type of product that addressed some of the big problems in the publishing industry. PDF and Acrobat allowed you to send your document across networks (and different platforms) while preserving the fonts and document formatting. In 1993 bandwidth and bottlenecks were a huge issue (four years before the 28,800 kbps modem became the standard in fact), Acrobat products offered a way to transfer documents without having to attach multiple fonts. Additionally, the documents could be sent without designers needing to worry about application specific usage agreements.

    With so much promise and industry buzz about this new format and associated products, it is surprising that Acrobat didn’t take off like a rocket. Some industry watchers attribute its slower success to that fact that users needed to pay for the PDF reader, while others just didn’t think outside the box and see the endless possibilities associated with PDF. In 1994 (with much ado), Adobe announced that its Acrobat Reader software would be available for free through online services and Internet server locations. In addition to an evolving distribution method, the products themselves evolved from simply allowing you to view and print a document to providing a way to extract specific selections of text or images from the file, password-protect areas of the document, and much more.

    Over time Adobe’s PDF format and Adobe Reader broke through its initial slump. Today Adobe PDF has achieved widespread use and is now a streamlined format for exchanging documents. It is now, in fact, the standard format for the electronic submission of drug approvals to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and for electronic case filings in U.S. federal courts. Over half-a-billion copies have been distributed since it’s initial version 1.0 release.

    From an initial set of three products in 1993, the Adobe Acrobat family of products has grown into an offering of nine products, designed to suit individuals as well as enterprise users who need to create, view, and share PDF files.

    The Adobe Acrobat Family – All You Need to Create, Manipulate, and Read PDF

    Adobe Reader

    To view a file in PDF format, you need Adobe Reader, which is a free application distributed by Adobe Systems. The free reader allows you to share your PDF documents with anyone and allow the end user to view or print the document on any system. It’s available for Windows, Mac, Unix, Linux, AIX, HP/UX and Solaris operating systems. Adobe Reader is also available for mobile devices running Palm OS, Pocket PC, or for Symbian OS. Users can freely download Adobe Reader from the Adobe Web site.

    Adobe Acrobat & Adobe Elements

    To create PDF files for distribution, you’ll need to have Adobe Acrobat (available in Professional or standard versions). While specific features between these products differ, any will allow you to both create a PDF document from any application that prints and to manage specialized content from other applications. All three support Microsoft Office (while the Acrobat standard and Professional versions support additional applications). These products also allow you to protect documents with passwords and apply restrictions on printing, copying, and alterations. You can also use them to view, print, and search Adobe PDF files.

    The standard version of Acrobat offers features such as support for applications like Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer, Access and Publisher. You can also digitally sign and certify documents, and Combine application files into a single Adobe PDF document. Naturally the Professional version of Adobe Acrobat offers even more features. Some applications needed to design and create PDF files are available as free 30-day trial versions from the Adobe Web site.

    Create Adobe PDF Online

    This subscription-based offering allows you to create Adobe PDF Online. You can create and publish reports, spreadsheets and resumes for distribution. You can also archive Web sites for easy reference and research, or turn scanned paper documents into searchable Adobe PDF files. Create Adobe PDF Online offers a free trial where you can create your first five Adobe PDF files for free, after which the service is available through a monthly or yearly subscription fee.

    Sharing, Serving & Dealing With Large Volumes

    Adobe also offers products that can assist you in deploying PDF distribution across your network or enterprise. Some of these products include the following:

    Adobe Acrobat Elements Server allows organizations to centrally deploy and manage Adobe PDF file creation capabilities across the enterprise.

    Adobe Acrobat Distiller Server allows workgroups to convert Adobe PostScript files to compact, reliable and more secure Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files over a network.

    Adobe Acrobat Messenger software is combined with a scanner or digital copier to transform paper documents into electronic files that you can deliver via e-mail, Web, fax and and so on.

    Adobe Acrobat Capture software is a professional production tool that teams with your scanner to convert volumes of paper documents into searchable PDF files. Acrobat Capture is designed to provide accurate OCR, advanced page and content recognition, and powerful cleanup tools let you turn all your important paper-based information into electronic documents.

    How PDF is Used Today

    It is becoming increasingly easy to create PDF files as (from a user’s stand-point) the process is almost as simple as printing. Essentially, anything that can be done with a sheet of paper can be done with a PDF. PDF technology is being used more frequently to produce offset printed documents (provided the designer properly embeds fonts and images).

    Adding to mainstream adoption, of course, is the fact that many applications allow users to save, import or export a document as a PDF (including popular publishing programs like QuarkXPress and CorelDraw), and you can also find a variety of third-party PDF conversion software tools available. With the capability to embed metadata (data about data) in a PDF file, along with the use of security options and electronic signatures PDF is also becoming a standard for data archiving. It may have taken a few years to perfect and years of dedication by the development team at Adobe, but today more and more people are turning to PDF as the solution for something not even thought of in 1993.

    Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.

    This article was last updated on July 01, 2010