Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Pretty Darn Friendly

July 2001

By Mike Gould

The great promise of the Internet is the free and easy transfer of information; bits and bytes flowing in vast unending streams, linking the world together. That free and easy business still has a way to go, but information is managing to make its way between the disparate systems that are tied to the net. The fact that a Mac user in Kalamazoo can communicate with a Windows user in Katmandu is a marvel indeed, given the radically different bit-generators involved.

Today we are discussing one of the ways that makes it possible to send coherent files hither and yon (say, from to 256.347.021.22): The Portable Document File, or PDF. Or .pdf, as it usually appears.

Lingua Franca
No, I'm not getting back on a Latin binge (as I did with In Camera Mondo; see; this is just a way of describing a language that is spoken by all parties, though not the native of any.

Here's a scenario: Person A, sitting in front of computer X, using software ß, cooks up a brochure that has a nice font, a pretty picture, and multi-column text just so. Person A sends the file to Person 2, who has computer Y using software ∑, and none of the fonts Person A has. Using regular word processing software, this is a disaster in the making. The fonts all change, throwing off the carefully-constructed column layout; software ∑ formats pictures differently, throwing the picture into random dots, and Person 2 has a different printer so all the page breaks are off.

Here is where the Portable Document File cuts the Babel: Person A saves the file into PDF format: all the fonts are embedded, the picture is frozen in place as designed, and the file prints perfectly on Person 2's printer.

Born to Print
The desktop printing revolution of the mid-80's was brought about mainly by the invention of the laser printer and the PostScript (PS) language that runs it. A nice 300-pound gorilla company called Adobe invented PS as a way to translate what you saw on your monitor into what emerged from your new-fangled printer. When you hit that PRINT button, the mojo that makes up the low-resolution screen image you have been staring at for the last hour is vigorously mutated into a crisp, high-resolution image made up of plastic powder melted onto mashed-up trees. This is done by the having the computer tell the printer what to print via the PostScript language.

A few years after the introduction of PS, someone at Adobe got the bright idea of using a dialect of this printer language as a means of transmitting complex documents between computers, and PDF was born. PDF takes all the complicated instructions ("Use this font at this size, divided up into these columns, flowed around this picture") originally intended for a printer and bundles them up into a format any computer can use to print out a picture exactly like the original.

The creation end of this is done with an application called Adobe Acrobat. You create your document in whatever page-making app you use (PageMaker, Quark, Word, whatever), and then instead of sending it to your printer, you "print" it to Acrobat. Acrobat grabs up all your processed imagery and bundles it up into a .pdf file suitable for printing.

The receiving end is the opposite: an app called Acrobat Reader opens the file and extracts all the relevant content and formatting. It unscrambles it into an image presented on your screen, and sends a suitably-reconstituted image to your printer.

Good News Printing
The upside of all this is true Rosetta Stone-level interoperability. The reader software is free, and available at the URL below. The bad news is that the creation software costs $250. But this is not something that everyone needs; for most users, the free reader allows everyone to read PDF's off the Web or sent as enclosures. The creator software is for professional content creators, like the editor of this magazine or anyone who sends print ads anywhere. PDF's are also making great strides on the Web. The haphazard way that most browsers display Web pages have made designers turn to PDF's as a way to get their work shown as intended. The downside is that PDF's have much greater file sizes, and hence, longer download times.

So how do we non-professional print folks share our files with the polyglot computer world out there? RTF, that's how. RTF stands for Rich Text Format, and is almost as good as PDF when it comes to providing universally-openable files. A text file (TXT) contains only text, with a little line-breaking thrown in. An RTF file adds bolding, paragraphs, and various other niceties, but no font info or advanced picture holding.

A .doc file is a Word file that contains everything but the fonts, but not every .doc file looks the same on every computer, and some versions of Word do terrible things to files created in other versions of Word. Not only does Word not play well with others, it doesn't play well with itself. And Word files can carry viruses.

So if what you are sending is all text and formatting is irrelevant, send a TXT file. If formatting is somewhat important, send an RTF. (This series of articles has always been transmitted as RTF). If you know that your recipient has exactly the same version of Word as yourself and all the same fonts, a Word file will do. If you're a print professional, send a PDF.

For more information about the Portable Document Format, talk to your friendly local desktop publisher, or consult with the mother ship:

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