A history of the PDF – it’s hard to imagine today’s world without the Portable Document Format (PDF). From scanned documents to ebooks, forms to payslips, the PDF enables users to view, print, comment on and exchange documents easily – saving valuable time and paper.

Now one of the most commonly used file types, PDFs also preserve document formatting, so you can ensure that everyone you share your file with is able to view it as you intended. Conceived in the 1990s by Adobe’s John Warnock, how did the PDF become the world’s most popular file format?

Creating the PDF

Before the PDF was created, the idea of sending full text and graphics documents over email was inconceivable to most – but not all. In 1990, John Warnock began working on an internal project at Adobe. Setting out to not only create a file format which would look the same on screen as it would when printed, Warnock wanted to design a format which would enable computer users to reliably and easily share documents with others, regardless of which operating system they were using.

Created by enhancing and merging two existing technologies – PostScript and Adobe Illustrator – the new PDF file format was completed and released into the world on 15th June 1993 after three years of work. Little did Warnock know that his pet project would soon change the way information was managed forever. In 2007, Adobe supplied its PDF format to the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) who, in 2008, standardised the PDF format, enabling it to become an open electronic document format.

The PDF in present day 

The PDF has made publishing open to everyone with a computer and continues to evolve to this day. Now used by millions, across industries and in every part of the world, the PDF format continues to grow in popularity as we move towards an increasingly paperless office. In 2015, an estimated 2.5 trillion PDFs existed on the internet alone. The PDF has become the accept

The future of the PDF

What’s next for the PDF format? As our screens continue to shrink and mobile devices become ever more prevalent – PDFs need to adapt to any type of reading situation in order to remain relevant. The ISO continues the ongoing development of the PDF and has created new tools such as support for e-signatures and touch-screen capabilities in recent years. While technologies – both software and hardware – are constantly modernised and replaced, the ISO continues to evolve the PDF file format – taking it from strength to strength by adapting it to our modern world and ever-changing user needs.


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