As I had mentioned in an earlier post, PDF does one thing exceedingly well: it looks exactly the same everywhere. This makes the PDF the default file format for formal documents such as legal agreements, forms, architectural drawings and corporate presentations. Other file formats (such as HTML and EPUB) dominate the market for more casual content such as blog posts, eBooks and news articles.
Clearly, retaining the formatting of a file is extremely important in a formal context. If an architectural drawing was re-sized, it may fail to convey its original meaning. While the PDF may be losing ground in some areas, no credible competitors have emerged in the legal, government and corporate market.
However, there are two major issues with PDFs today.
PDFs are hard to read on mobile devices
Firstly, PDF files are hard to read on devices with small screens such as mobile phones. Users on mobile phones are looking for content that they can easily read on a small screen. Today, the PDF format mostly fails to address this need.
While some solutions such as Papercrop try to address this problem, it is likely that most PDF readers in the future will automatically process PDF files for a better mobile viewing experience. Depending on the device used to open the PDF file, the file will automatically re-size itself (i.e. zoom in and out) while maintaining its original aspect ratios. While this is a small step in the right direction, my opinion is that optimizing the reader is only a partial solution.
Ultimately, this issue may be impossible to overcome for a simple reason: the whole point of using a PDF is to maintain its original formatting! I’m looking forward to seeing how Adobe and other PDF software vendors address this problem in the future.
PDFs are difficult to edit
The second major issue with PDFs is that they are very difficult to edit. Once again, this issue is by design: PDFs aren’t meant to be edited! The purpose of a PDF is only to convey content in a format that cannot be modified. PDF files cannot be changed without leaving an electronic footprint: this is why PDF files can be used as digital evidence in a court of law.
While there is a reasonably large ecosystem of PDF software companies who promise PDF editing solutions (including PDF Pro), the harsh reality is that there is no perfect PDF editing solution. Every provider has both strengths and weaknesses.
The most robust solutions, typically desktop software products, which allow a user to directly edit the text of a PDF file are fairly expensive. For example, Nitro Pro starts at $159.99 for a single user (yikes). Meanwhile, the desktop edition of Adobe Acrobat Pro starts at $449 for a single user (double yikes).
Newer online vendors, such as PDF Pro, have much more reasonable pricing terms. PDF Pro, for example, offers the first edited PDF file at no cost, while our subscriptions start at $7.99/month. However this comes with a significant caveat: PDF Pro’s solution is most appropriate for lighter editing needs that cover basic touch-ups and small changes. Today, the solution is probably inappropriate for a user that needs to make substantial changes to a PDF file.
Needless to say, we are working hard to add new features that will improve our product in the future. The new version of PDF Pro allows a user to download three PDF files completely free. Furthermore, we are working to add new features including a PDF to Word document converter that should greatly assist anyone looking to make substantial edits to their PDF file.
What’s in store for the future?
While the PDF file has shortcomings, these issues are hard to resolve as they conflict with the purpose of using a PDF file: to deliver content in a means that maintains its original formatting and cannot be changed without leaving a footprint.
While small improvements will continue to help mobile users read PDFs on small screens, I would not expect PDFs to become as mobile-friendly as HTML5 files anytime soon.
However, I do expect the PDF editing experience to improve over time. Specifically, I expect PDF software to become cheaper and easier to use in the future. Online PDF software companies continue to gain ground on their desktop competitors, and this is something I have discussed at length in a previous blog post.