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A shared vision for a better world

On World Standards Day 2021 the PDF Association celebrates PDF’s connection to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
About the author: Peter Wyatt is the PDF Association’s CTO and an independent technology consultant with deep file format and parsing expertise. A developer and researcher working on PDF technologies for more than … Read more
Peter Wyatt

Peter Wyatt
October 14, 2021


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""The theme for World Standards Day in 2021 is a “shared vision for a better world" which is highly relevant in today’s COVID ravaged world. Throughout the pandemic working from home, virtual schooling and events, and online shopping all became the norm with PDF cementing itself as the dependable electronic document format of choice. PDF files have helped facilitate information flow between isolated employees, students, customers and businesses. 

As an ISO standard first published in 2008, ISO 32000 defines core PDF with a precise appearance model and a large and rich set of additional functionality that enables catalogues, review workflows, digital signature workflows, textbooks, invoices, interactive order forms, and many other forms of paginated content to be easily and reliably shared.

This year World Standards Day is also linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs aim to address many social imbalances, including making our world more accessible, more equitable, and more sustainable:

  • PDF is defined in the open, collaborative and consensus-based ISO forums. Experts from all countries can join us to contribute and help pave the way for the future of electronic documents. By being standardized, the PDF file format specification is available for anyone to implement, as highlighted by the diverse and healthy PDF ecosystem that exists today.
  • ISO 14289 PDF/UA is a specialized version of PDF directly supporting those that require assistive technology to access electronic documents, whether this be due to vision impairment, physical limitations in using technology, or other issues. PDF/UA specifically defines all the capabilities that assistive technologies need to provide to create equitable access to PDF content.
  • PDF/X was the very first PDF-based ISO standard and was created almost 20 years ago. It formed a basis for “blind eXchange” of digital print-ready data in the graphic arts sector. This reduced barriers and enabled commercial partnerships between brand owners and print shops that were simply not feasible prior to standardization. In the years since, the PDF/X family of ISO standards has continued to evolve including forming the basis for even more specialized ISO standards for variable data printing and template-based workflows.
  • The ISO 19005 family of PDF/A standards target archival and long-term preservation needs, which also supports financial recording keeping requirements for businesses.. PDF/A is also the foundation for numerous electronic invoicing and ordering standards around the world, reducing barriers for small and medium-sized businesses over the otherwise very high cost of complex EDI solutions.  
  • The success of 3D PDF in aeronautical, automotive, defence, and manufacturing sectors, initially via PDF/E and more recently as part of PDF/A has also realized efficiencies and reduced trading and communication barriers across these sectors.

When we reflect on all these successes that PDF brings, we should also be thankful to the many volunteers who have contributed their knowledge and expertise into the standardization forums over the many years - in some cases, leaving otherwise fierce competitive rivalries at the door so that we could all move forward together.

In his 1997 paper Lex Informatica: The Formulation of Information Policy Rules through TechnologyJoel R. Reidenberg of Fordham University School of Law discussed what he thought the future might look like for those creating technical standards. In describing networking standards, he stated:

The organizations generally make decisions by consensus. When the network community was small and homogeneous, this process worked well. However, it is unlikely that the consensus model will persist to function effectively because global networks now reflect more diverse interests. The commercial politics that drove standards organizations will be succeeded by far more politicized social politics. This evolution is likely to make the technical tasks of standards bodies more difficult to accomplish. The technical community, willingly or not, now has become a policy community, and with policy influence comes public responsibility. Policymakers by necessity must pay closer attention to the activities of these organizations, and they must participate more aggressively if they wish to push technical developments in a direction responsive to public goals and the need for customization capabilities. Policymakers should argue for particular technical capabilities and functions that will incorporate public objectives (i.e., what the network can and should do), while leaving the specifics of the protocols to the engineers (i.e., how the infrastructure will provide the capabilities and functions). This task will not be easy because the policy and technical communities have very different cultures.”

From our experiences with standardizing PDF, we can definitely state that this bleak future did not emerge, and that technologists, policymakers and end-user representatives can and do cooperate to make effective standards for a much better world.

PDF Association CEO Duff Johnson, has been involved in standardization since he began leading the effort to develop PDF/UA in 2004. Now Head of Delegation for the US TAG to TC 171 SC 2, Project Leader for ISO 14289 and my co-Leader for ISO 32000, Duff answered my call for words about World Standards Day as follows:

"Standards for accessible digital content such as ISO 14289 (PDF/UA) are especially challenging to realize because to actually deliver on the promise of accessibility they require capable software AND human attention throughout the document tool-chain (i.e., word-processing, creation, consuming, API and assistive technology) and lifecycle (i.e., drafting, authoring, editing, layout, publishing, distributing, consuming, annotating, archiving). That is, they require the maximum degree of attention to standardization, everywhere, all the time. The greatest challenge to PDF accessibility is not the core technology - PDF is perfectly capable - but the extraordinary variety of tool-chains and lack of common understanding of challenges among software and content developers alike. A better world is what standards - and adherence to standards - is all about. Accessibility is a job for standards.

PDF accessibility is the busiest subject within the PDF Association, as several committees and working-groups meet multiple times each month to refine, develop and promulgate common understandings about the successful implementation of PDF technology for accessibility purposes. As the ISO Project Leader for ISO 14289 it’s my honor to thank the volunteer members of ISO TC 171 SC 2 WG 9, and the members of the PDF Association’s PDF/UA Technical Working Group, who have labored for years on the development of ISO 14289 (PDF/UA,) the Matterhorn Protocol and the Tagged PDF Best Practice Guide: Syntax and are presently working hard at other initiatives in support of accessibility. As the CEO of the PDF Association it’s likewise my privilege to thank the members and staff of the PDF Association for supporting the organization, and especially, the organization's work in administering ISO TC 171 SC 2 and operating working groups to further the interests of PDF developers and users alike."

Members' comments

As part of World Standards Day 2021, we asked PDF Association members to reflect on how PDF standardization has helped create a shared vision for a better world" across so many industries around the globe. 

Kevin Devorsey from the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) sees the importance of an active involvement in PDF/A and said “One of the greatest challenges facing NARA is managing the tremendous variability of federal records created by agencies, especially electronic records. Inconsistent file formats, metadata, and recordkeeping practices pose challenges to our ability to ingest, describe, and provide access to records that belong to the National Archives of the United States. 

By including standards in NARA’s regulations and guidance, we push agencies to adopt widely recognized approaches, system capabilities, record types, formats, and metadata across the Federal Government. The more standardized federal records management practices become, the better NARA will be able to accomplish its mission to preserve and make accessible the permanently valuable records of the Federal Government. By participating in the development of standards such as PDF and PDF/A, we are able to influence them to ensure that they meet NARA’s long term requirements.” 

Dov Isaacs, former Principal Scientist at Adobe and current Convenor of ISO TC 130 WG 2 (the ISO committee responsible for PDF/X and PDF/VT) provides some historical context on PDF standardization: "The standardization of PDF via ISO 32000-1 in 2008 was the key factor in liberating PDF from the perception and associated taint that it was a vendor-specific (i.e., Adobe) file format. However, it was the series of PDF/X subset standards, beginning with ANSI PDF/X-1 in 1999 followed by ISO 15930-1:2001 PDF/X-1a in 2001 that triggered the mass migration from PostScript to PDF as the lingua franca for document interchange for graphics content, not only for print for which it was originally intended, but also for display. PDF/X 'tamed' PDF by providing a well-documented 'safe and sane' subset of PDF that was conducive to reliable end-to-end graphic arts workflows, from content creation to rendering. The early success of the ISO PDF/X subset standards for graphic arts also inspired the development of ISO PDF/A for archiving. Over the years, as the graphic arts content has become more graphically complex with more extensive use of color and transparency, and the needs of the graphic arts and print community have evolved and expanded, we have continued to refresh the ISO PDF/X standards to meet these needs. Additional features from the base ISO 32000 PDF standards (now including ISO 32000-2 PDF 2.0) have been incorporated into new PDF/X standards, most recently including ISO 15930-9:2020 PDF/X-6 standard published in late 2020. The success of the ISO PDF/X standards provided the stimulus for ISO TC130 WG2 to also develop the PDF/VT standards supporting PDF/X-compliant files for variable and transactional graphic arts content."

Martin Bailey, Distinguished Technologist at Global Graphics Software, has been involved since the very first PDF/X and PDF/VT standards were proposed and said “When the first ISO PDF/X (PDF for eXchange) standard was published in 2001 it had an immediate impact on several print segments, most obviously magazine advertising to start with. It greatly increased the efficiency of workflows where a PDF file was submitted for printing by seamlessly, and almost invisibly, reinforcing best practice during creation. Back then variable data print was still “the next big thing” in the commercial sector, and yet to make any real inroads into labels & packaging or other markets. The printing standards community felt that extending the benefits of PDF/X to variable data printing would help to achieve that potential, and therefore started work on PDF for Variable and Transactional workflows.

After a couple of false starts, the first PDF/VT standards (PDF/VT-1 and PDF/VT-2) were published in 2010, standing on the shoulders of giants by building on PDF/X-4 and PDF/X-5. The PDF Association’s PDF/VT Technical Working Group were requested to provide application notes for it to assist developers of composition tools and digital presses to support it. And then the second edition (PDF/VT-3) was published in 2020, building on the latest edition of the PDF 2.0 standard and on PDF/X-6, that were published at the same time. This tight cooperation between the groups working on the various standards also extends to work on PDF/A for archiving and business exchange, and to PDF/UA for accessibility, ensuring that a single file can be created while following best practices for a wide variety of use cases. The PDF Association’s PDF/VT Technical Working Group is now working on guidance to assist with implementation of PDF/VT-3 and of PDF for variable data printing in general.”

Adam Spencer of AbleDocs commented on the importance that ISO 14289 PDF/UA has achieved in helping those with disabilities: “Standards represent a global language of technology.  We’ve had a group of international experts get together based on real-world experience to determine what the base minimum is vis-à-vis PDF accessibility from a technology standpoint and saying if you’re going to claim accessibility, compliance is the baseline. The ongoing efforts made voluntarily to ensure those standards are maintained, enhanced, and adapted to the changing technology in our space allow us to continue that conversation as we advance. The black-and-white nature of our standard in PDF/UA draws a line in the sand; you’re compliant, or you’re not, with no grey area. We think this further helps the PDF accessibility initiative worldwide because we have the definitive answer of whether a PDF is technically accessible, or it isn’t. Our work through the national standards bodies and the ISO helps further that effort.”

Dr. Hans Bärfuss of PDF Tools commented "People seem unable to live without norms they don't want to live by." We could not have put it more aptly than German journalist and author Wolfgang Mocker (1954 - 2009). Standards surround us in everyday life: The fact that we can use our credit cards worldwide, for example, is thanks to a whole series of standards. When we need an adapter for the power socket abroad, we notice the lack of a uniform standard. When standards work, this goes unnoticed. Only when they are missing or when we have to subordinate our own interests to the standard, we perceive them negatively. What we oftentimes tend to forget: Standardization is like a language that serves mutual understanding. Of course, learning a new language costs us a lot of effort, but the valuable opportunity for understanding exceeds this many times over.” 

iLovePDF said: "Thanks to the ISO standardization of PDF, our documents can be protected with password encryption to secure sensitive information, valuable educational resources can be accessed anywhere in the world, on any device or operating system, and our most important data can be securely backed up and easily viewed if we need it at any point in the future.

A file format that we largely took for granted is digitally transforming industries globally, helping companies reduce paper waste, innovating schools, and giving people fairer access to technology."

ABBYY said: "Empowering professionals to maximize efficiency in the digital workplace is a big focus for digital intelligence company ABBYY. That’s why the company created ABBYY FineReader nearly 30 years ago. Support for the latest PDF standards has always been an important part of FineReader product development.

After all, it is not only the desire of users to work with a universal format of documents, but also the state task of making communication accessible to everyone. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium has published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which contains not only guidelines on how to publish HTML content, but also rules on how to publish PDF documents.

One of the ways to ensure accessibility is to use the standard PDF/UA format. In the public sector, making content accessible is overdue in many regions and will soon be reinforced. ABBYY supports this standard as an export format and makes saving accessible PDF documents possible."

Finally, on behalf of the PDF Association’s Board of Directors, the Chair of the Board, Matt Kuznicki of AbleDocs said “Standards are the manifestation of consensus and interoperability. Standards enable shared systems, shared understanding and cooperation across space and time. ISO standards for PDF technology make information more easily accessible for current and future generations. I'm proud of the work put forth by PDF Association members and other volunteers in helping to improve the world's access to information through advancing PDF standards together.”

You can also read our related articles for World Standards Day 2021 including “A day to think about the PDF standard…” by Dietrich von Seggern in his role as the PDF Association's ISO Liaison Officer and “Making standards smarter” by Peter Wyatt, our CTO.

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