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PDF Generators Weigh In --McIlroy

January 2003
In my last column I discussed some of the results from the Seybold organization's in-depth report on the state of PDF: "PDF Workflow Shootout & Usage Survey" ($450 from Seybold Publications). The 84-page report looks at two sides of the PDF problem: what do publishers (PDF generators) want, and what do printers (PDF processors) want? Like most reports, particularly those that are styled as "shootouts," the report suffers from some questionable methodology, and inconclusive results.

At the same time, this is the only comprehensive survey yet conducted on PDF utilization in the graphic arts. PDF workflows are the most important technology development in the printing industry in the last five years, and a statistical survey was long overdue.

I've already discussed the PDF processors' perspective, particularly as it relates to available PDF workflow systems. Let's now consider the PDF generators' views.

This section of the report is clearly more useful than the earlier section. The questions are better framed, and the answers easier to interpret. The survey is about as close to definitive as we get in our industry: 2,221 responses were tabulated. As the authors note: "This can be considered the largest and most comprehensive PDF usage survey yet conducted."

My top-line view of the results is that while Adobe's PDF has clearly improved the efficiency of prepress workflows, it's still a long way from delivering on its promise. It is underutilized, improperly utilized and not fully trusted. The reasons for this are the usual suspects: users are not properly trained, nor do they run the latest and best software.

Most PDF files are submitted from old versions of Acrobat, and users often also send in the original application file, just in case. Although this was a survey specifically about PDF use, most respondents still report sending in more QuarkXPress files than PDF files. Despite its unambiguous benefits, PDF, clearly, is not yet the dominant file format for most publishers.

At the same time, PDF-X/1a, the most clearly defined version of the PDF format, is employed by only a small minority of users. Enfocus' Certified PDF, a near-fool-proof PDF workflow, does not merit a mention.

Because prepress workflows are still error-prone (in both perception and in fact), both PDF generators and PDF receivers push to have original application files submitted along with the PDFs, in roughly 40 percent of cases. There's a widely-held view that PDFs are tough to edit. Certainly Acrobat continues to provide only minimal editing tools; while PDF editing software like Enfocus PitStop is too complex for the average, unskilled user.

PDF has found a particularly successful niche as a tool for soft proofing—it's used this way in over half of print jobs. Of course there are lots of problems using PDFs this way, both because of missing fonts and colors that don't match. And the production challenges with PDF files go beyond soft proofing. Problems frequently encountered include images missing or with insufficient resolution, and incorrect bleed or trim information (all problems that originate in the native application file).

Training Available?

This, again, is primarily an issue about training. While most PDF file receivers (printers and prepress shops) report that they offer training, less than half of PDF generators think they receive any training at all. (I've seen this problem since the dawn of desktop publishing. Crisis-based phone support is not the same thing as outbound training; most printers haven't a clue what really training their customers should mean.) The one-third of users who report they have received training employ mostly "online or self-paced training" (and we know how effective that is!)

Interestingly one of the key reasons for using PDF is for its non-print applications. Nearly half of the files submitted are intended for CD-ROM or Web publication, usually in combination with print. More than 60 percent of PDF file generators also repurpose PDF files to the Web. Some 40 percent plan to use their PDF files for searchable archives, and 30 percent expect their use of PDF to reduce their overall print volume.

With all of these challenges still associated with PDF workflows, why are they becoming so popular? Users rate "fewer cross-platform issues" as the number one benefit. Smaller file sizes are a plus, as are more efficient workflows and soft-proofing options. PDF generators often point to the repurposing and archiving benefits, as well. More than half of users expect PDF usage to increase the most in the next year, running far ahead of anticipated increases for QuarkXPress (18 percent) and Adobe InDesign (8 percent).

I see the issue in black-and-white: PDF is the future of print workflows, and the sooner that printers get their customers up to speed on how to use it properly, the sooner they will get to the kind of efficient, error-free production that we didn't even dare dream about a mere decade ago.

—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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