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PDFs

May 1, 2007 12:00 AM


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It's a simple fact of computing life: Software applications and file formats are updated on a regular basis. Because the Portable Document Format (PDF) had become the de facto standard in the exchange of files for print production, keeping up with the “every 15 to 24 months” changes in the PDF specification and the Adobe Acrobat application has been especially critical for design and prepress professionals. In this article, I will talk about the current state of PDF — including the latest version of Acrobat software, the Adobe PDF Print Engine and how new formats like Microsoft's XPS might influence the future of PDF.

Open specification to open standard

When it was released late last year, Adobe's Acrobat 8 boasted quite a few changes for to print production professionals. The new PDF specification itself (PDF 1.7) offers nothing as earth-shaking as the support for transparency introduced with PDF 1.4 (and still a bane to PostScript workflows everywhere). At the end of January 2007, however, Adobe made an announcement that can only be described as momentous, and one that will affect the future development of PDF for all time. Adobe plans to turn the full PDF 1.7 specification over to the Intl. Organization for Standardization (ISO) via AIIM, the Enterprise Content Management Assn., with the intention that it will become a true open standard.

PDF has, since 1993, been an open format, meaning that it was openly documented so that anyone could obtain a copy of the specification and develop software to create or digest PDF files. Adobe estimates that there are between 1,200 and 1,800 such applications. All of the actual development of the PDF specification, however, has been done internally by Adobe; no outside organization could contribute. This will all change in the future when PDF, the open specification, becomes an open standard. It means that PDF 1.7 is the last version of the specification to be developed entirely by Adobe — all future development will be done through a standards committee, allowing third parties to contribute their intellectual property to the spec. Some developers claim they make cleaner, better PDF files than applications that license/use the Adobe PDF Library. Now they can become part of the working group that will develop the standard PDF (or whatever it comes to be called, the name itself could change) and incorporate their innovations into the standard.

A countermove to Microsoft?

Why is Adobe doing this now? One motivator could be the recent release of Microsoft Vista and the accompanying new XPS (XML Paper Specification) format some dubbed the “PDF Killer.” XPS is a container file format, not unlike PDF, and because it is based on the trendy XML, some pundits propose that it is superior to the 15-year-old PDF. Adobe apparently felt threatened enough by both XPS and Microsoft's development of a tool to export both XPS and PDF files directly from Word that it forced Microsoft to exclude the PDF/XPS export option from the base install of Office 2007 — instead, the export software is available as a separate download from Microsoft's Web site.

Adobe is developing its own XML-based format, code named Mars, described as an XML-friendly implementation of PDF syntax. Adobe claims that this move is simply the next in the evolution of PDF, as the company already has been very involved with standards working groups for the development of the other already-existing PDF-based standard file formats like PDF/X, PDF/A, PDF/UA and PDF/E. When PDF becomes an ISO standard, it will be the umbrella for all of these.

Projects developed by committee do tend to move slowly, so we might not see another new version of the PDF spec for years, especially considering that Adobe estimates the time frame for actually turning the spec over to AIIM could take anywhere from 18 to 30 months. It also means that going forward, the release of new versions of Adobe Acrobat likely will not correspond with new versions of the spec, as it always has in the past. So we probably will be working with PDF 1.7 for some time. This, too, might be a welcome respite for graphics production pros.

Name that font

Are there any new developments in the PDF 1.7 spec that impact print production? Most changes are for the benefit of other industries, like engineering/architecture and legal. For example, there are several new features that give PDF viewing applications more control over the appearance of 3D artwork, which is the basis of the new Acrobat 3D package, yet another flavor of the Acrobat application family (in addition to Standard and Professional, not to mention Acrobat Connect). For print production, the key new feature is the ability to specify font file names using UniCode in addition to the standard encoding based on viewing platform. This can help resolve some of the problems with letter spacing or text reflow users frequently see when a PDF file is created on one platform (with fonts not embedded) and viewed on another. This is potentially a pretty big deal and might at least reduce some oft-cited issues on the font front.

Acrobat 8 Professional has been tricked out, buffed up and otherwise enhanced to the place where it finally can stand (almost) on its own as a PDF preflight and repair command center. There are still a few prepress essentials best left to a third-party plug-in, but many of the functions that once required a third-party add-on can now be accomplished with the basic tools in Acrobat 8 Professional.

Acrobat 8 looks entirely different from its predecessors, which is nothing new — the last several versions of Acrobat have offered very revised GUIs. While most of the other Creative Suite application interfaces look more similar to each other with each new revision, Acrobat remains the odd man out, more closely resembling an office application. This is by design, as graphics professionals are not the primary audience for Acrobat — corporate users are.

May we see the menu?

Still, it can be frustrating to have to search for a frequently used tool, like the Overprint Preview option, that's been tucked under the Print Production fly-out menu under the Advanced menu. The Local Fonts option is no longer under the Advanced menu at all, but now is found in the Page Display Preferences as a check box in the Rendering section. While you're in there, you might also want to select “always display document page size” from the Page Content and Information section. This option was missing in Acrobat 6 and 7, both of which required users to drag the cursor down over the lower left corner to see the page size. Prepress pros, in particular, will be glad to see the return of always “on” page size display.

Toolbars no longer are attached to the menu bar; rather, they stick to the top of individual files as they are displayed, moving along with them and rewrapping as a window is reduced or enlarged. Different PDF files can have different toolbar settings that stick with them as they are opened and closed. If no files are open, only the menu bar along the top shows up, sans any toolbars. Once you get used to this, it makes a lot of sense. Now files can be displayed without any toolbars at all, while others can carry specific toolbars that might matter for a particular workflow, like the Print Production toolbar. Managing toolbars is far easier with Acrobat 8, and when you turn unwanted toolbars off, they stay off.

While merging multiple files into a single PDF could be done in Acrobat 7, the Combine Files option now includes a second option to create a PDF Package. Packages differ from merged documents in that they are a collection of separate PDF files held together into a kind of binder. Merged files end up as one multipage PDF file. PDF Packages can be built from a variety of original file formats, including PDF files, most image formats and native InDesign (but not native QuarkXPress) files. On the Windows platform, an XPS file can be converted to a PDF file using this option. The Combine Files option offers three conversion settings options; the best option to use is the Default File Size, because that option can be customized for each source file format in Preferences in the Convert To PDF dialog window. There, for example, you can select from a list of Distiller or InDesign PDF settings that will be used for the conversion of InDesign files to PDF when they're part of the Combine Files process.

Word to the wise

While we're talking about file conversion options in Acrobat 8, note that it also is possible to create a Word document directly from a PDF in Acrobat 8 simply by selecting Export from the File menu and choosing Word Document as the file format. This works on both the Mac and Windows platforms. If you do this expecting heavily designed PDF files to retain their layout integrity when converted to a Word file, you will be sorely disappointed. As a general means of getting text out of a PDF file for editing, however, with a goodly portion of the formatting intact, this method works wonders.

Another option once only available through a third-party tool was the ability to create a new, blank document in Acrobat. With version 8, one can create a blank page from the Create PDF selection under the File menu. When this blank page shows up, a new toolbar appears as well, with basic typesetting options. This is a way to make Acrobat 8 into a sort of word processor in itself, as the user is allowed to access any open font on the system and type in a free form fashion on the page, with defined margins. If a font with embedding restrictions is selected from the list, a warning dialog displays, but it does not prevent the user from actually going ahead and using that font. In fact, after some experimenting, it appears that even open and available fonts are not always embedded in a PDF file created in this way, so again, user beware.

Collaborative reviewing is something that has changed with every version of Acrobat since the capability was first announced, with Web browser and platform issues hampering true server-based collaborative workflows. In Acrobat 7, e-mail review was the preferred method of cross-platform collaboration, but it had the limitation of not allowing all users in a review chain to see one another's comments — for that, a shared server is necessary. Now, with Acrobat 8, Shared Review can work on a common server, both SMB or WebDAV, so it has become much easier to collaborate in a mixed Windows/Mac environment. Although it might not be obvious, iDisk, the Internet storage space on Apple's servers available to those with a .Mac account, can be a WebDAV server and setting it up is very easy — the IT staff doesn't even have to be involved.

Big difference: quick fixes

The biggest change in Acrobat 8 is enhancements to tools in the Print Production Toolbar, including the total makeover of its preflighting capabilities. The preflight interface looks quite different from that of previous versions of Acrobat. It is more streamlined; the preflight profiles are organized into logical groups and the interface is easier to understand. The biggest improvement includes something that was previously only available via third-party plug-ins, like Enfocus Pitstop Professional — the ability to repair common problems via what Adobe calls Fixups. Preflight comes loaded with a bunch of premade profiles, many of which also contain one or more Fixups. One big thing to beware of with this new option is that when a preflight check with Fixups is run, the PDF file is saved automatically, so there is no reverting back to the original document if the result isn't what you expected. As a rule of thumb, never run a preflight check that includes Fixups on an original file; always work on a duplicate.

Let's say right now that the Fixups capabilities do not eliminate the need for a well-honed PDF editing tool like Enfocus Pitstop Professional. That said, it certainly has chipped away at the need for a third-party tool for the most common types of repairs. Among the repairs a user can perform using Fixups:

  • Convert color spaces, as the Convert Color feature does.
  • Set black objects or text to overprint.
  • Set white objects or text to knock out.
  • Remove OPI comments.
  • Repair documents and eliminate unneeded content as PDF Optimizer does.
  • Convert the PDF to a different version.
  • Increase the width of hairlines.
  • Flatten transparency.
  • Remove objects outside the trim and bleed box.
  • Prepare the PDF for PDF/X or PDF/A conversion.
  • Set document information.

One of the things Preflight and Fixups don't do at all is embed fonts into a PDF file, even when they're open and available on the system. Even the Touchup Text tool has issues with embedding fonts. (The Touchup tool might tell you that the font has been embedded, but sometimes when you attempt to then save the PDF file, you will get the error message: “Font could not be embedded because the font stored on the page and the system font are encoded differently.” This was a known error in Acrobat 7 and was supposed to have been fixed with the version 7.08 update, but I've seen it happen in Acrobat 8.) A tool like Pitstop excels at embedding fonts into a PDF file.

Preflight profiles, along with Fixups, can be saved as Droplets for desktop drag-and-drop ease of use. In Acrobat 7, a Droplet could not be edited; if you desired a change, you had to start over and create a new one. With Acrobat 8, Droplets are editable, although the paths that lead to success or fail folders are hard-wired, so if a designated folder is moved, the Droplet will have to be rebuilt. Droplets also are platform specific, so one created on Mac cannot be shared with Windows users.

Color conversion

While a Preflight profile can contain a Fixup to globally convert color from one color space to another (a cool way to convert an entire document, by the way, a task many prepress pros once relied on Quite a Box of Tricks to do), now it is possible to use the Touchup Object tool to manipulate image files in many ways, including changing the color space of just that image. Images also can be rotated, flipped, scaled, clipped, cut, copied and replaced by another image using the Touchup Object tool.

Among the numerous enhancements to the Print Production toolbar set is the improved Crop tool. In Acrobat 7, users could increase the size of a PDF file, but the contents always would be centered within the new space. Now the user can set X, Y offsets for new page sizes, which is beneficial for things like creating some clear space on one side of a page for binding. Also improved is the Transparency Flattener, which now offers the high-resolution flattening settings as a default. The Optimizer, too, has been cleaned up, now with check boxes to allow users to toggle settings on and off with ease.

Getting JDF “job ticket” files along with the project content files is a priority for a growing number of print service products. While the interface to create JDF files was available in Acrobat 7, it has been made more user friendly in Acrobat 8, with options to create reusable templates that can include PDF creation and preflight profile settings, basic customer information and output instructions. Customers' PDF files and the corresponding JDF file can be packaged together in a MIME format that can be submitted directly to a JMF device via a specified URL or saved as a file. This packaged file will have a .mjd extension, and when double-clicked, it will decompress into the separate PDF and JDF components.

We expect PDF 1.7 to be around for some time, and Adobe Acrobat 8 makes life easier by offering the best graphic production tools ever. As to the future of PDF, its development is out of Adobe's hands, so we can expect the unexpected, but can anticipate a shot of outside intelligence from third parties to only improve the standard. Evolution is inevitable, and good.


Julie Shaffer is director of the Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation's (PIA/GATF) Digital Printing Council (DPC) and heads up the Center for Digital Printing Excellence at PIA/GATF headquarters in Sewickley, PA. E-mail her at jshaffer@piagatf.org.

No more transparency indigestion

Beyond the release of the PDF specification to ISO, one of the most far-reaching changes to a PDF-based print production workflow is RIPs that directly consume PDF files, like Adobe's PDF Print Engine and Global Graphics' Harlequin RIPs. As more PostScript-based RIPs are converted to these PDF-digesting models, problems that prepress pros have had to contend with, like transparency flattening, will go away. And the development of Web-based PDF creation and delivery tools also will profoundly affect how PDF files are created and delivered to print production facilities. Depending on the composition engine built into W2P solutions, PDF files created by them can have virtually no problems, eliminating the need to perform preflight checks. When the PDF building tool is developed without cognizance of print production needs, however, prepress facilities might find themselves dealing with PDF files that are consistently bad. (We've heard stories of custom-built W2P storefronts that allow users to upload images into a page template, and then automatically converts those images to vanilla RGB, with no ICC profile, no matter what the source color space was.)

Plug it in, plug it in

Do we still need those third-party plug-ins to Acrobat for a print production workflow? Because many of these plug-ins have been on the market for years, the interfaces are clean and the toolsets have been refined to meet the needs of skilled prepress and graphic production pros. When it comes to inspecting individual elements on a page, Enfocus Pitstop Professional Inspector beats Acrobat's built-in options hands-down, and Acrobat's Fixups don't offer the scope or flexibility of editing options available in Pitstop's Action Lists. As I mentioned, font embedding and editing still is best done with Pitstop, as well, especially when it comes to editing text using the fonts embedded within a PDF file. (Acrobat requires the fonts to be loaded and accessible on the computer; Pitstop allows editing using the fonts embedded in the actual PDF file itself.) So, for advanced editing, third-party plug-ins still have a firm place, but the most common issues can indeed be handled with stand-alone Acrobat 8.