PDF: Printable, Downloadable, Formidable
If any digital document format to date is even approaching universal acceptance both within the content business and among consumers, then the ubiquitous Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF) must be it. Claiming over 450 million downloads of its reader software, PDF has become the Kleenex of the industry; it is simply what many people call edocuments nowadays. While Microsoft's announcement last fall of its upcoming XDocs forms-based digital doc- ument format was enough of a shot across Adobe's bow to made the corporate stock dip for a while, Acrobat faces no immediate competition. Most interesting in this field are the novel ways in which publishers and institutions are using PDF to circumvent the Web as a presentation platform and even make digital content tangible enough again for people to buy.
"Any document you can receive in print, you could receive in PDF here," says Kendall Whitehouse, director of advanced technology development at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. One of Acrobat's earliest adopters back in 1993, Wharton demonstrates how fully digitized content in an organization changes both distribution and workflow. As part of the print routine among outside contractors, Whitehouse says that "when a design firm drops files to a printer, they route a PDF to us" and the document often gets posted weeks before hard copy arrives. Likewise, it helps Wharton rethink the Web itself, "not as a presentation format," says Whitehouse, "but as a transport layer that is quite efficient." And frankly, PDF simply archives better than old Web pages anyway. One of the unforeseen and "serendipitous" outcomes of a decade devoted to PDF is a pristine library in a consistent file format, says Whitehouse. No hunting for old Web pages written in dead formatting languages.
Some new and old publishing companies are PDFing their way around the Web's notorious weaknesses: its layout limitations, lack of portability, and even its business-killing legacy of free content and little ad support. Indeed, Acrobat is now the exclusive publishing platform for a mainstream general consumer magazine (300,000 circ.), TheSpook. Editor, publisher Anthony Sapienza sends polished, hi-res layouts straight from Quark, complete with interactive TOC and clickable ads for Armani and other top-tier clients, directly to PDF. Readers can download them as a single 100-page issue or by the article. "If we were a print magazine, we would run $1 million an issue for production," says Sapienza. "We can put out an issue for as little as $10,000." And unlike Web users, he finds that PDF readers are willing to read the longer articles, even on screen, because the typeface and layout simply are more polished. While still not quite profitable, TheSpook's 24 ad pages and A-list talent (Joyce Carol Oates, Chris "Hagar the Horrible" Brown) suggest that the dream of the paperless magazine remains alive.
Beyond layout, portability, and efficiency, PDFs also offer publishers and their readers another quality that eludes the Web—tangibility. Most publishers have already discovered that getting users to pay for content on this virtual Internet platform is a tough sell. People like to buy what they can hold, and so publishers such as NYTimes.com and Meredith Interactive (BHG.com) have been experimenting with selling digital content by the piece in downloadable form rather than selling simple access to more Web pages. "I like that it can be portrayed as a familiar method of distribution," says Dave Kurns, editor-in-chief of Meredith Interactive, which offers PDF versions of select how-to articles. He says it is like, "Here is an Idea Book for $6. People understand it's a book; it's something you download."
And here's a book; it's something you carry. Meredith is also experimenting with a customized, print-to-order recipe book. Users pick the recipes they want, complete with luscious illustrations, and the files are generated automatically into a PDF book that Kinko's prints, binds, and delivers to their door.
The most intriguing aspect to the proliferation of PDF is the way in which it has changed how publishers and users see and use the Web. Ultimately, digital content has to follow the eyeballs, which often want to use that material away from the Internet or a connected PC. At Wharton, TheSpook, and Meredith, the unintended consequence of PDF ubiquity is that the Web increasingly becomes a back-end delivery and content management system rather than a publishing platform. It is the place people might come only to shop for and download content, or manage customized delivery that sends their content elsewhere.
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