The success of the PDF file format is a great example of how a product becomes a global technical standard, like the PDF has. For anyone looking to build or invest in a new technology that hopes to become a standard, I can't think of a better lesson from history. In the early 90s, the PDF was competing against several other file formats including DjVu, Envoy, and Common Ground Digital Paper.
John Warnock’s vision for the future
The initial technology came about as a side project operated inside Adobe by John Warnock, one of the company’s founders. His vision was to provide the technology that would ultimately enable the paperless office. In The Camelot Project, a paper outlining Warnock’s vision, he wrote: ‘Imagine being able to send full text and graphics documents (newspapers, magazine articles, technical manuals etc.) over electronic mail distribution networks. These documents could be viewed on any machine and any selected document could be printed locally. This capability would truly change the way information is managed.’ The initial plan was to use the file format inside Adobe, helping the company reduce its reliance on paper.
Solving an important problem: readability
In its earliest days, the PDF solved a simple but important problem: a PDF looked exactly the same everywhere, regardless of which device opened the file. This is why PDF stands for Portable Document Format. This was a big deal in a world where even issues like cross-device font recognition were a big deal. The PDF was the first file format that enabled a document to be shared electronically while retaining all elements of its original formatting. If the sender sends a PDF, he or she has full confidence that the recipient will be able to read the file. Today, this seems relatively trivial as cross-device readability for many different file formats is not a big deal.
Emergence as a global technical standard
But the PDF file didn't succeed because of its technical prowess, it succeeded because of Adobe's strategic foresight. In fact, there are good arguments for why other competing file formats were technically superior to the PDF. There is also some contention as to whether the PDF was truly the first file format that retained a document’s original formatting. Either way, the PDF file didn’t succeed because of time to market or technical superiority.
The file format was publicly launched in June 1993 to limited fanfare. Acrobat (allowing users to create and modify PDFs) was priced at $695 and Adobe charged $50 for Adobe Reader. However, the company quickly realized that charging for the reader was a strategic mistake and made the product free in the same year. By distributing Adobe Reader free of charge (unlike any of its competitors), the PDF quickly gained adoption. By 1999, more than 100 million copies of Adobe Reader had been downloaded from the web, and the PDF became a global standard. Today, there are trillions of PDF files in existence, and the supporting ecosystem built around the PDF format ensures that it will remain the pre-eminent file format for viewing documents for a long time.