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A PDF Progress Report --McIlroy

November 2002

The in-depth "PDF Workflow Shootout & Usage Survey" ($450 from Seybold Publications) is an 84-page report that looks at two sides of the problem: what do publishers (PDF generators) want, and what do printers (PDF processors) want?

It's perhaps easier to say what the companies that process PDF files for customers want—as described above, a system that can chug through the toughest files and produce predictably perfect results. Initially, Seybold set out to test 13 systems that could create "prepress-viable PDFs from four problematic application files." Then they tested 18 systems that could output the final PDFs.

What to say about the results? Hmmm. I'm not quite sure. Oh, yes, here's what I can say, "They're interesting." I've never been a big fan of contests, whether beauty contests or prepress system contests. The surrounding drama is always fun, but they're always marred by the arbitrariness of the contest rules, and by the little things that invariably go wrong and skew the results, whether it's just a contestant having a bad day, or a corrupt judge from a far-away place.

Top scores went to one of our industry's largest suppliers, and to one of our smallest. Both Creo and OneVision have already sent out press releases trumpeting their victories, Creo, as vendor with the highest overall score (albeit for two different systems), and OneVision for the highest overall score on a single system. Congratulations to both.

But what does that really tell any of us about the two dozen other systems? That they don't work? No, that's too strong a statement. That they don't work as well as Creo's and OneVision's system? No, it only says that for this particular set of rigorous test files, with this particular set of judges, Creo and OneVision outperformed. The rest is highly speculative.

As the report's writer admits, "one conclusion became inescapable: PDF workflows are highly vulnerable to human error…we estimated that the overall scores were 2 percent to 10 percent lower than they could have been, due only to human error."

Real Value

What's most valuable in the study is the recognition that (a.) there are a lot more systems available for processing PDF files than Acrobat, Prinergy and Apogee, and that (b.) not all systems are created equally—some perform better in certain areas than others, and generally for a good reason.

For the printer, you're faced with the usual choices. Buy the name brand and get on with it, relatively confident that it will do the job you want. Or investigate the full range of choices out there, knowing there is probably another system just a little more suited to your workflow (and budget).

In my next column I'll look at the second half of the report, which examines what users are doing with PDF files.

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing consultant and analyst, based at Arcadia House in San Francisco. He welcomes your comments at

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