Adobe vs. Microsoft III: Open Standards Lose?

by on June 3, 2006 · 2 comments

Following up on Sonia’s and Andrew’s recent posts on reports of the PDF spat between Adobe’s and Microsoft. What’s interesting in all of this is that Microsoft wants to implement PDF into its product offering. But what is it implementing? Is it a closed standard dressed up like it is an open one? Or is the version that Microsoft plans to offer (now via a free download, not as a part of Office or Vista) an open standard? When it comes to PDF, what’s the difference? The problem is that there are many different versions of PDF. Time for a little history lesson:

The PDF 1.4 specification is used in the AIIM created, and ISO approved ISO 19005-1 PDF/A and PDF/X standard. The PDF/A is generally considered the “archive” standard, PDF/X a focused subset of PDF designed specifically for reliable prepress data interchange. They are application standards, as well as a file format standard. In other words, it defines how applications creating and reading files should behave.

The PDF 1.5 specification was first a part of Adobe Acrobat 6.0, which was introduced in April 2003

PDF 1.6 was released in November 2004 and is supported by Adobe Acrobat 7.0, the current version. The AIIM committee has begun work on ISO 19005-2 based on PDF Reference 1.6.


Closed or Open?

Adobe is an open, yet proprietary, specification. It publishes the specs for its PDF versions (see the 1200+ page PDF 1.6 Developers Manual).

According to Adobe, the PDF specification remains under Adobe’s control so it can be quickly adapted to meet new needs, such as the bar-code capability recently added.

Adobe’s own words about the license terms and various forms of PDF:

“I believe the Open vs. Published is more than a semantic issue. The keys to remember are:
1) PDF is not Open Source. Adobe does not release the code to Acrobat or the Adobe Reader. The format itself is maintained by Adobe solely. Open Source software is generally maintained and added to by a community.
2) The PDF specification is a published specification. That is to say, Adobe shares the full technical underpinnings of the format.
3) The PDF specification is “open” to the extent that anyone can look it and– if they are smart enough– create good PDF using it.”

Adobe encourages MA to adopt the 1.6 version:

Finally, under the Standards and Specifications heading of the section addressing the Portable Document Format, the ITD establishes version 1.5 as the baseline specification for PDF files. We would instead recommend that ITD establish version 1.6 as the baseline. This would allow the Commonwealth to be harmonized with the internationally established PDF standards.

See John Carroll’s blog entry: (relevant excerpts follow):

Some might argue that PDF’s standardization by third party standardization groups (i.e. “joint stewardship”) make it more “open” than Office XML. PDF/A (ISO 19005-1) has been ratified by the ISO for long term document preservation and archiving, and PDF/X (ISO 15930-1) is for the reliable exchange of press-ready, high end graphic information that facilitates the exchange of, among other things, high-end color advertisements.

If Massachusetts’ chose the ISO-ratified PDF variant, then we’d have something to talk about. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Rather, they chose PDF version 1.5, a specification completely controlled by Adobe. Just to put that in perspective, that would be like the Massachusetts’ Department for the Promotion of Video Arts (which doesn’t exist) standardizing on Windows Media 9 (WM9) as opposed to VC-1. WM9 serves as the foundation of VC-1, but it is not the same thing as VC-1, which is a standard in the final approval stages by SMPTE and into which third parties can have input.

The choice calls into question the notion that one of the “standards” of openness was that “it must be subject to joint stewardship. If so, they would have specified the officially sanctioned variant of PDF, not the one owned completely by Adobe.

So, is Adobe trying to have it both ways–Closed and Open? And if so, does this commingling and Adobe / MS spat give the whole open standards process a black eye?

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