The death of the PDF has been predicted many times, however, the file format continues to thrive. In spite of many efforts to kill off the format, governments, corporations and individuals continue to use PDFs to exchange information and archive documents. Looking at Google Trends, a tool that measures interest in a keyword, global searches for the term “PDF” continues to rise:
Really? Wasn’t some fancy new technology supposed to kill off an invention from the early 1990s? Let’s try to understand why the PDF remains a universal standard.
Why do PDFs still exist?
The PDF file continues to do one thing amazingly well: it looks exactly the same everywhere, across any device including desktop, mobile and tablet. This is why PDF stands for Portable Document Format, it allows you to view your documents on any device while retaining its original formatting. Most devices today come with an in-built PDF reader, and there are also a wide variety of free PDF readers. Thus a PDF can be opened and viewed by practically any device in the world.
In addition, the PDF format has been adopted by organizations all over the world. Most government forms and business contracts are PDFs, in order to prevent any unwanted changes. Furthermore, PDF files are admissible as evidence in most courts as they are read-only and cannot be changed without leaving an electronic footprint. The PDF format thus enjoys support from a powerful ecosystem of governments, businesses and legal institutions.
While many newer file formats have similar features, PDF continues to dominate because almost every device in the world has a PDF reader. Sending a PDF almost guarantees that the recipient will be able to correctly view the file, and this has led to its popularity.
While there are niche areas today where PDF usage is dropping, such as in the eBook space, the format reigns supreme in most other areas. It’s difficult to replace an established, universal file format.
So what will change in the future?
So while the PDF is still going strong, PDF software is still falling short of user expectations. Most solutions are expensive ($50 or more), difficult to use or simply do not work as advertised. Customer service is also shockingly bad. This is incredible considering that the PDF has been around for almost 25 years!
From this angle, what will change in the future seems obvious, and you should expect big changes in the ecosystem of providers selling PDF software and technology. PDF software companies need to make their products (1) actually work, (2) cheaper, and (3) easier to use. This will likely require a new generation of startups, as existing providers seem to be happy selling desktop applications. Similar to other areas in software, new online PDF solutions that allow you to create and edit PDF files in your browser is likely on the horizon. Why is this so? Online (or software-as-a-service) vendors have three big advantages over desktop providers.
Better pricing: Firstly online services can be priced more appropriately, for example, as a monthly subscription or using pay-per-use credits. This allows the seller to price the service according to specific user needs, and not using a “one price fits all” formula.
Better user experience: Secondly, the nature of an online PDF product means that it can be improved much more iteratively relative to a desktop application. Desktop software is usually only updated once a year, and thus changes can be slow. An online service is much easier and cheaper to update. Thus online PDF services are much more responsive to changes in needs, and this results in a better overall user experience.
Alignment of interests: Lastly, online services only succeed when customers are satisfied! As customers pay ongoing fees (usually in the form of a monthly subscription), an online service needs to satisfy their customers or risk going out of business. Success can only be achieved by delivering a great product backed by amazing customer service. This is not true for desktop application sellers who usually are looking to close a one-time sale. My personal experience with several desktop applications was extremely poor.
OK, so will desktop PDF software disappear?
While online PDF services are likely to succeed for the reasons listed above, it’s also important to note that desktop software isn’t about to disappear. In the future, expect online services to meet the basic needs for most users. Today, there are many PDF creators that are fully online and this need has been largely met. However, there are very few good online PDF editors or PDF to Word converters, and this remains an area of development. As online services get better and better, desktop software sellers will be forced to move into more concentrated areas of specialization. Thus online PDF services will grow at the expense of desktop software vendors. This is similar to what we have seen in other areas in the software industry, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen with PDF software.
While the PDF itself looks like it’s here to stay (for now), I expect many changes in the world of PDF software. In my opinion, these changes are long overdue!