PDFs are great at lots of things — if you’re emailing your resume to a potential employer, turning in a term paper to a professor, or getting some wedding invitations printed, they provide a firm guarantee that they will look the same on their computer as they will on yours. All the images will be just where you put them, and things like footnotes will be presented in just the right way. They can be exported from just about every application and read on pretty much any device released in the last few decades.
They are, as the name implies, a truly Portable Document Format.
The biggest problem with PDFs is that they are too good at their core function of presenting documents consistently that they are used in contexts for which they are badly suited.
Tons of documents that consist largely of text are stored and managed exclusively in PDF format, especially documents that come from technically conservative cultures like the law. These sectors want a format that they can rely on for the long term and is compatible with other people that might want to read their documents.
However, much of the time, when people access these documents, they don’t actually care about their visual formatting or your ability to share them. What they care about is getting the information they need to do their job, not how big the margins are.
What’s worse is that PDFs can hide tons of complexity behind the scenes. For example, if you create a fresh PDF today from Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or most modern desktop applications, the PDF will be easily searchable with just a ctrl-F.
That is only possible because that PDF is a combination of both graphical and textual information, with the two layers being invisible to the user until you select some text or try to do a search. But if you’ve ever tried to copy-and-paste from a PDF and gotten a bunch of garbled text, you will have realised that the image and text can easily diverge. Its very flexibility in managing images and text together can make it harder, not easier, to manage PDFs.
The same is true for the tremendous portability of the format. PDFs can be read anywhere, so in many organisations, they do live everywhere. Important PDFs can lurk in email inboxes, sit unread in Sharepoint workspaces, or worse, remain on insecure network drives for years.
Our organisations need more from our documents than what PDFs can deliver, with solutions oriented towards data and text, rather than formatting and fonts.