Evil File Format

by Jimmy Akin

in Internet

Down yonder, a reader writes:

PDF is a "native" file format on Mac and opens up quickly and easily
in a program that comes with OS X called Preview. No behemoth Adobe
Acrobat Reader required.

I’m not sure it’s fair to label PDF as an Evil File Format when it
is the Windows OS and its substandard applications that are clearly
being evil here.

:P

I don’t know that the Win OS can be characterized as evil here in
that it seems to me that Mac has simply decided to collaborate with the
spread of an evil file format by making it a native file for the OS.
Other OSes don’t have that, to my knowledge, so it seems that Mac is
the unusual one in this regard, not that Win is being defective and
therefore evil.

Mac OS snobbery aside, there are a bunch of reasons why PDF is an evil file format. Here’s a list. Evils 1-5 may not be relevant to the Mac OS, but the rest are, so far as I know:

  1. It requires a separate app to read them.
  2. This app seizes up your computer while it loads.
  3. This app throws up a large and annoying splashscreen to keep you from reading the page in front of you while it loads.
  4. This app is constantly checking the Internet and trying to get you to download updates.
  5. This app has rotating advertising in its free version.
  6. PDF files are often insanely large; they are the document equivalent of bloatware.
  7. PDF files are highly proprietary and cannot be converted to other formats without special tools.
  8. These tools can be EXPENSIVE.
  9. These tools sometimes cannot be used to convert PDFs AT ALL (e.g., when a PDF basically contains an image of a document).
  10. These tools tend to have MASSIVE FORMAT LOSS when they do work.
  11. Without these tools there is a(n UNDOCUMENTED) way that (SOMETIMES) lets you extract basic text from PDFs, but this results in a horrible mess format-wise that has to be untangled by the user and that is more trouble than it is worth when columns are involved.
  12. Finally, PDFs cannot be created without a multi-hundred dollar program that the offending software company (Adobe) is always fiddling with (unless you want to use one of the third-party PDF creators that are of known reliability, usually have their own costs, and may come bundled with spyware).

So there! ;-)

Thanks, therefore, to the other reader who found the tool PDF Speedup, to ameliorate Evil #2.

I can just imagine the evil software people at Adobe, who are usually cackling with delight at how much frustration their programs create, gnashing their teeth in rage at the thought of someone making the programs less frustrating to use.

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{ 23 comments }

Circuit Rider December 13, 2004 at 11:19 am

Windows lacks a number of virtues, and possesses a number of antitypes of virtues, so is it perhaps indeed evil?
.pdf reading programs are FREE, and exist by the bushel. You don’t have to pay the Microsoft tax for them.
Word Doc format, now there is an evil format, changing each release to require people to upgrade (pay protection money) when they don’t need to, and to prevent opensource coders from providing real competition.
Support the international standards organization’s attempt to make XML the document standart format. And not one ‘embraced and extended’ by Microsoft!

B Knotts December 13, 2004 at 11:37 am

You are really talking about PDFs on Windows.
On other platforms, they are not so bad.
I use Debian GNU/Linux with KDE. PDF reading is part of the desktop environment. You can even see thumbnails of the documents as their icons.
There are a ton of free tools to create PDFs in Linux/UNIX.
And in KDE, you can even “print to PDF.”

Anonymous December 13, 2004 at 11:38 am

Going through your list…
1. It requires a separate app to read them.
Almost every file format imaginable (that attempts to do anything interesting, e.g., pdf) requires a separate app, or an app extensively modified for the purpose, for its use. Some examples include .gz, .zip. .tar, .jpg, .ps.
2. This app seizes up your computer while it loads.
As (I think) you mentioned, this isn’t a file format issue. It’s a poorly written software issue (which may have little or nothing to do with the file format). Seeing as I use .pdfs on an old computer (not using Adobe’s viewer), it doesn’t seem to be related to the format per se.
3. This app throws up a large and annoying splashscreen to keep you from reading the page in front of you while it loads.
Again, not a file format issue.
4. This app is constantly checking the Internet and trying to get you to download updates.
As before.
5. This app has rotating advertising in its free version.
As before.
6. PDF files are often insanely large; they are the document equivalent of bloatware.
This is for the most part simply false (at least in my experience). pdf files can become large, but they are (again in my experience) typically significantly smaller than the same data/images/tables/graphs/text in a different format.
7. PDF files are highly proprietary and cannot be converted to other formats without special tools.
I’m not really up to speed on this issue, but my hunch is you are basically wrong. Here’s why: there exist dozens of completely free pdf readers and file authoring tools. I create pdf’s multiple times a day without using any adobe products. It is also trivial to convert these pdfs to CERTAIN OTHER FORMATS, e.g., postscript.
In fact, it is unreasonable and simply naive to expect or desire any given file format to be easily convertible to any other format. The reason being that different file formats attempt to do different things. Case in point: suppose you had a file which contained information about a complex 3D model of a sculpture. There’s a lot of data in it, so it’s naturally a big file. But it has everything you need to rotate the sculpture, squish it, and do anything else people do with sculpture models. Now suppose you want to show the world your sculpture. Well, you don’t put the model online (it’s big and has more data in it than observers need or want). So instead you produce a lossy rendering of it, to some commonly readable format like .jpg. Now everyone can view it, the file is small (it only needs to contain the pixels representing a 2d projection of the model). But it’d be silly to complain that you can’t take the .jpg and rotate the model. JPG’s just aren’t designed for that purpose.
It’s the same thing with PDF.
8. These tools can be EXPENSIVE.
They can be, but they can also be free. At least, all the software I use is free.
9. These tools sometimes cannot be used to convert PDFs AT ALL (e.g., when a PDF basically contains an image of a document).
Right, but as I was saying, this isn’t necessarily a fault. Actually, it can be a huge advantage.

12. Finally, PDFs cannot be created without a multi-hundred dollar program that the offending software company (Adobe) is always fiddling with (unless you want to use one of the third-party PDF creators that are of known reliability, usually have their own costs, and may come bundled with spyware).
This is just false. There may however be a limited amount of free software on certain operating systems (e.g., windows).
pax!
scott

Brian Day December 13, 2004 at 11:58 am

#6 can be true or not. When converting MS Word documents to PDF, the file size actually goes down. But try to convert a WordPerfect file to PDF will bloat it insanely.
It looks like Adobe and MS collaborated well in being able to save MS docs to PDF. Other software makers have not, although I suspect that is MS’s fault.
As CR said, word.doc file format is truly evil.

Tim December 13, 2004 at 12:11 pm

Visit openoffice.org
It is the future of word processing. Open source, MS office compatible, completely free, makes PDF files with one click of the button.
I am now free from MS Word, Excel and Powerpoint and have a little more $$ in my pockets.
Diversity is a good thing (especially in nature, computer software, and human life).

Brian K December 13, 2004 at 1:00 pm

PDF has value as an open file format, so it is considerably less evil than MS-Word format, e.g.
On the other hand, it is evil in a web browsing context. It does not integrate well with any browser (at least on Windows) and, most of the time, uses print formatting even for online viewing (I don’t want or need page headers and footers in the middle of a document I am reading on my computer.) For these reasons, and some of those listed in the post, I will resist opening an PDF document, unless I must get to the information, or I am planning to print it.
While most of the complaints listed can be assigned to the applications, rather than the file format, they do accurately reflect the average user’s experience with PDF documents.

Scott B December 13, 2004 at 1:54 pm

Speaking as a Mac owner (using OS X), yes, generating PDF’s is “free” anywhere you can print on a Mac. However, Mac PDFs tend to be the most bloated PDF’s around. Because OS X uses beautiful fonts in so many places, the PDF often needs to embed them. There are other reasons as well having to do with OS X’s Quartz rendering engine.
As an example, if I take an article of mostly text from the WSJ.com page and have Mac Safari (it’s native browser) Print to PDF, it’s huge relative to using my Windows machine having Firefox Print to PDF with the Adobe Acrobat ($$) tools. The Adobe generated PDF is often smaller than the sum of the HTML and embedded graphics, due to PDF’s native compression.
The other Scott (above) said that pdf is akin to jpeg. He’s right. It’s a distilled result of some other program. It’s not the source.
You can speed up Windows Acrobat launch significantly by holding Shift down right when it launches. It prevents Acrobat from including all those plugins that scroll by along the bottom.
I have to agree with others. *.doc is evil. I don’t own MS Office. Why do folks assume everyone who’s anyone has it? Unlike pdf, it is a closed proprietary format that only a few software projects have managed to reverse engineer.
That said, I have seen PDF abused on the web, but usually I see it reserved for docs that are to be ‘printer ready’.

Randy December 13, 2004 at 3:20 pm

Wow, I have never heard of anyone hating PDF. I develop php/mysql based web application and I use a open source library called fpdf to convert data into pdf files. It makes things so nice for viewing and especially for application purposes.

Brian K December 13, 2004 at 4:23 pm

I have rarely met anyone who liked to use PDF for online viewing. I have even heard it compared to an outer circle of hell.
It may be a Windows vs. non-Windows thing. As mentioned before, Adobe’s Acrobat reader for Windows is slow, annoying and has a terrible UI (and it got even worse in V6). On other platforms, there are probably better software options.

Scott Kingery December 13, 2004 at 5:00 pm

A while back I posted how to speed up Adobe Acrobat:
http://users.tns.net/~skingery/weblog/2004/08/speed-up-adobe-acrobat.html

Jason December 13, 2004 at 5:30 pm

Jimmy, being a computer guy from 9 – 5, I sympathize with you. Let me offer you some suggestions/comments/help to your 12 points.
1. It requires a separate app to read them.
Agreed, but what doesn’t?
2. This app seizes up your computer while it loads.
Again, agreed, that’s why I use other programs besides Acrobat Reader.
3. This app throws up a large and annoying splashscreen to keep you from reading the page in front of you while it loads.
This can be turned off: Edit > Preferences > Startup > Uncheck Display Splash Screen. (Incidentally, this makes Reader open up a lot faster)
4. This app is constantly checking the Internet and trying to get you to download updates.
This, too, can be turned off: Edit > Preferences > Updates > Change the Check for Updates drop down box to “Manually”
5. This app has rotating advertising in its free version.
The insignificant little box in the upper right hand corner doesn’t seem _that_ bad.
6. PDF files are often insanely large; they are the document equivalent of bloatware.
I’ve never found this to be the case. I can see if the document has a lot of graphics and other eye candy where it can get out of control, but it does no worse than Word documents.
7. PDF files are highly proprietary and cannot be converted to other formats without special tools.
I use OpenOffice to do this. It’s free and being developed all the time. It can be downloaded at OpenOffice.org. It’s a whole Office suite that I use to replace the highly expensive (and,I belive, evil) Microsoft Office. It can natively do PDF operations.
8. These tools can be EXPENSIVE.
Yes, some are, but as stated in #7, OpenOffice is free.
9. These tools sometimes cannot be used to convert PDFs AT ALL (e.g., when a PDF basically contains an image of a document).
I’ve personally never had a problem, but I can see where there can be examples of unconvertable documents.
10. These tools tend to have MASSIVE FORMAT LOSS when they do work.
I can sympathize with that. Same goes for Microsoft Office formats.
11. Without these tools there is a(n UNDOCUMENTED) way that (SOMETIMES) lets you extract basic text from PDFs, but this results in a horrible mess format-wise that has to be untangled by the user and that is more trouble than it is worth when columns are involved.
It’s that way with all document formats, not just PDF.
12. Finally, PDFs cannot be created without a multi-hundred dollar program that the offending software company (Adobe) is always fiddling with (unless you want to use one of the third-party PDF creators that are of known reliability, usually have their own costs, and may come bundled with spyware).
As stated in #7, OpenOffice does a great job, is free, and there is absolutely no spyware.

BillyHW December 14, 2004 at 2:30 pm

Well, since I started this flame war, let me also chime in with a defense of PDF and the Mac platform in general. As St. Peter said, “always be ready to give an account for the joy that is in you.”
Let us begin…
*****WARNING! WARNING! Mac snobbery ahead! WARNING! WARNING!*****
I don’t know that the Win OS can be characterized as evil here in that it seems to me that Mac has simply decided to collaborate with the spread of an evil file format by making it a native file for the OS.
Yes, but this is remote material cooperation*, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons. :P
In this case, the proportionate reason being the complete domination of worldwide document formatting by Microsoft.
Other OSes don’t have that, to my knowledge, so it seems that Mac is the unusual one in this regard, not that Win is being defective and therefore evil.
The Mac’s DisplayPDF integration is a fundamental part of its next-generation display layer. You can read a little bit about it here:
http://arstechnica.com/reviews/1q00/macos-x-gui/macos-x-gui-2.html
Other OSes don’t have that because they are inferior and only contain current technology, not futuristic next-generation technology like the Mac does.
Mac OS snobbery aside
This has nothing to do with snobbery. I speak only about the truth, my dear brother. Yet ye will not listen to the truth I bring. We Mac users have a great commission to bring the Good News of computer salvation to all of cyberspace’s people, to the Windows user first, then to the Linux.
It requires a separate app to read them.
On Mac, the same built-in Preview app opens many formats: jpg, gif, PDF. No separate app required.
This app seizes up your computer while it loads.
Preview launch time: .25 seconds. And you can even multitask and do something else during that time.
This app throws up a large and annoying splashscreen to keep you from reading the page in front of you while it loads.
Preview has no splash screen. But Preview also keeps you from reading the page in front of you because it launches and opens up so very quickly.
This app is constantly checking the Internet and trying to get you to download updates.
Mac OS X only asks you to download updates when you log in as an administrator account, if there are any. Since, unlike the Windows platform, there aren’t daily “this bug allows anyone anywhere to gain complete control of your system and not give it back to you even if you’re not connected to the internet” type security threats, you can update everything once a month and be worry and hassle free.
This app has rotating advertising in its free version.
I agree that adware is a HUGE problem on Windows. It’s one of the reasons I switched.
http://www.apple.com/switch/
PDF files are often insanely large; they are the document equivalent of bloatware.
This is true. Even truer on Mac if you are using the built-in PDF creator. But with modern 180 kagillobyte HDs and high-speed internet connections, it doesn’t really matter so much anymore. The PDF files need to be large because they have to contain all the font and graphic information in the file itself, so that anybody on any platform can open them. That’s kind of the point of PDF. Otherwise everyone would have to own a copy of Microsoft Office.
PDF files are highly proprietary…
This is not quite true. Much of the PDF format is open, that’s why Apple decided to use it instead of PostScript technologies. Only some of the extra-fancy and security features are Adobe proprietary. And then, that only applies to the PDF creator, not the reader. Anyone can read them. Microsoft’s .doc format is what’s highly proprietary.
…and cannot be converted to other formats without special tools.
Why would you want to convert a PDF into something else when it’s already in the perfect format?
These tools can be EXPENSIVE.
Microsoft Office if EXPENSIVE.
These tools sometimes cannot be used to convert PDFs AT ALL (e.g., when a PDF basically contains an image of a document). These tools tend to have MASSIVE FORMAT LOSS when they do work. Without these tools there is a(n UNDOCUMENTED) way that (SOMETIMES) lets you extract basic text from PDFs, but this results in a horrible mess format-wise that has to be untangled by the user
Why are you trying to edit a PDF file??!!! PDF is a post-edit file format for distribution, viewing, reading and most especially printing. PDFs are not meant for editing. This is not a failure of the file format, but a misuse of the file format.
I’m not sure how Adobe Reader works on PC, but you can copy and paste from a PDF in Preview. It’s so easy, that’s why it’s undocumented.
…and that is more trouble than it is worth when columns are involved.
Okay, I condede also this point. Score 2 for Jimmy! :)
Finally, PDFs cannot be created without a multi-hundred dollar program
On Mac, you can create a PDF from just about any piece of software for the whopping price of $0.00 (U.S. dollars). And it’s built-in so you don’t even have to factor in the cost of your time to download/install a piece of software. The ability to create PDFs for free and without hassle was one of the reasons I switched. I use this feature often to distribute handouts electronically to my students.
Compare that to the price of Microsoft Word which is about $500 because they make you buy the entire library of Microsoft software just to get the word processor.
…that the offending software company (Adobe) is always fiddling with
But whatever fiddling that Adobe does, which I’m not even aware of, doesn’t “break” old PDFs you created. Any document you create will always be openable by the person your giving it to. Unlike Microsoft who’s always fiddling with the .doc format just to intentionally force people to pay their protection money.
(unless you want to use one of the third-party PDF creators that are of known reliability, usually have their own costs, and may come bundled with spyware).
Well, there’s your problem right there! We Mac users don’t worry about adware, spyware or malware on our platform because there is none. None. Zero. Zilch. The Null Set. ϕ. I agree that this could be problem for those who have not received the grace of mactism. You have our compassion and understanding.
So there! ;-)
He is still obstinate in his refusal to accept the Mac Gospel. Beware heathen! Now that you have heard the message of salvation you will not be able to claim invincible ignorance on the last day! Woe to him who uses Windows…on that day there shall be much weeping, and gnashing of teeth!

Scott December 15, 2004 at 3:12 am

Wow BillyHW!
Not that you didn’t preface it with a warning, but that was some heavy Mac advocacy … even for me (the head of an Apple-only household).
I have to concedek, though, that AFAIK it’s true. Modern OS X based Macs are “not your father’s Oldsmobile”.

Lurker July 6, 2005 at 3:53 am

Why’d you have to bash Linux, Billy? I can preview PDF files just like you can in a Mac, and even have four programs installed that can open them (and there are more that exist). I can print to PDF files as well. I don’t prefer the format, but it comes in handy when someone wants to show me their latest Microsoft Publisher project, or when I do my taxes and send my husband a nice crisp PDF file to print out on the laser printer.
I have no spyware or adware, and what’s different about open source is that you can actually look into files and make darn *sure* there isn’t anything in there “phoning home”. If that’s beyond one’s ability, there are still millions of people around the globe who can and do go through these files, so it’s very difficult (if not virtually impossible) to get away with writing spyware for a Linux OS.
Let me get this straight: You would rather convert everyone to Mac, eliminate all other choices, and let Apple build itself up enough to be the next spyware/adware target (i.e. the numbers would make Macs worth targeting–be careful what you wish for), and just another monopoly? There are other reasons to despise Microsoft, but understand that because their source code is closed, as geeky as their end users can be, they can’t help Microsoft patch their software, whereas any potential holes found in Linux are usually patched the same day they are found. Apple would be in the same situation if they were dominant–make no mistake about it.
And, certainly, as a Mac user yourself, you see what happens when a monopoly gets too big for its britches and you’ve got complete disregard for intercompatibility and standards.
You also get absurd patents (copyrights aren’t the same as patents!) on things like a “Progress Bar”, passed by technically inept legislators because they’re fooled by lobbyists, meaning even if you write your own progress bar from scratch–even in another language–you’re violating somebody’s patent. In the literary world, that’d be equivalent to patenting a broad idea such as a story containing an “orphan”–e.g. No more books featuring an orphan because Charles Dickens patented that broad idea. (A copyright on the other hand is fine–actual code cannot be stolen because that would be plagiarism.)
I won’t bash Apple computers; I will say that Linux users with iPods and Macs lying around are often not satisfied with Apple programs and tinker with them or write their own programs–we’ve even got a small but more powerful version of Linux just for iPods, and at least a couple of Linux OSes that a dissatisfied geek can install on their Mac. I say if you like Mac OSX, more power to you, but geesh, not another monopoly; I’m not sure Mac users think things through when they evangelize the way they do and include Linux as their next victims for conversion. As much as they insist Mac is better, “better” is a relative concept. Nobody needs the company with the most cash deciding what is better for everybody to the point where technology’s direction is steered by just a few, and where compatibility is thrown out the window, progress by others is hindered by ridiculous “patents”, and people have to suck it up and use the dominant OS whether they want to or not.
If you’ve used Linux in the past, you might have had some of the complaints that I did about it a few years ago, but these days I’m REALLY warm and fuzzy over SuSE 9.3. Linux has come light years from a couple years ago, or from last year. I’ve never had such a hands-off OS, yet I have an OS where if I really wanted to geek out and tinker with something, I could. The number of programs available, and configurability options are overwhelming. I’m trying to think of something I’m missing and need, and I just can’t. Hardware compatibility is also not the issue now, like it used to be, when I stupidly bought Windows-only peripherals. Really, I’m having a great experience with SuSE right now, and my Windows/Gamer husband is even impressed with what I do with this machine. Incidentally I also received a Mac G3 I’ll put together shortly, just to play around with. I’m sure it’ll be fun but I’ll give up my SuSE when someone pries it from my dead, cold hands.

Animadversor August 19, 2006 at 3:26 pm

Well, Jimmy’s just wrong here, on every count, but he seems to be having such a good time hating Adobe and PDFs that it seems a shame to disabuse him of his misconceptions. We all enjoy having our blood boiled from time to time.

chad October 9, 2007 at 9:53 pm

PDFs are Evil, no doubt. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with ‘em for a long time to come yet.
Comments for WINDOWS to make your life less misrable:
1.) Use Foxit Reader, 100x better, no Adobe suckage (http://www.foxitsoftware.com/pdf/rd_intro.php)
2.) For CREATING, use Office 2007′s Save as PDF if you use Office2007, or use one of the myriad of free PDF creation tools such as doPDF (www.doPDF.com)

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