I found an interesting article on the blog of “technology innovation company” DPCI about how PDF format is an e-publishing dead end. In an era when e-readers have so many different potential screen sizes and different text formatting and rewrapping abilities, the article notes, a format that was primarily developed to freeze a page into a form that would look the same no matter where it was printed is a dead end for screen reading.

PDF is a dead-end format. What I mean by this is that the nature of the format mimics what it was intended for: print. Once ink hits the page, the code behind it that created it becomes irrelevant because the content was not intended to move from the printed page to another system, print is the end product.

Many of the platforms that are used in digital publishing today are based on technologies like HTML in order to allow the maximum flexibility between different platforms. Storing content in such a universal way also gives the maximum flexibility for future platforms. As digital publishing is rapidly changing as is the nature of the digital space, locking content into a single dead-end format like PDF only restricts your business opportunities moving forward.

The piece also points out that many of the interactive elements Adobe has since incorporated into PDFs rely on Adobe applications and Flash to view them—which means that they don’t read as intended on mobile platforms like the iPad or Amazon tablets, and with even Adobe moving away from Flash it’s not clear how viable they’ll be into the future.

I agree with pretty much every word of this article, though I can’t help but think it’s maybe about ten years late since I’ve been saying much the same thing about PDFs for at least that long. PDFs really aren’t an “e-book” format, no matter how reflowable you might make them.


  1. I download a lot of books as PDFs, and will continue to do so as long as the format is available. What the article ignores is that there are other reasons for using PDF than just reading. When I plan to review a book, or want to make note of research material, a PDF is the most convenient way to do it without the constraints of being limited to a specific reader. I can have the book open and showing highlights and comments, on my computer, while I’m working on the review or other material.

    Have you ever tried to copy a quote from the Kindle app? Here’s exactly what I get when I paste a quote to my word processor. ” ‘If you looked at a graph of authors and their book sales you would see a huge amount from sales from authors like Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Stephenie Meyer and other best-selling authors. ‘

    “Fallon, John (2011-12-12). $1,000 A Day Writer (Kindle Locations 49-50). Fallon Press. Kindle Edition.”

    Imagine having to constantly delete the unwanted material. I don’t know whether the same problem exists on the KIndle device or any other reader, but there is also the dependence on those readers and having to transfer the material from the reader to the computer to get the work done.

  2. De wrote:
    “PDFs have one purpose, getting the information to a printer. Other than that, they’re horrible.”

    I disagree. PDF has been a wonderful format for cross platform exchange of documents, also maintaining consistency of appearance as well as consistency of print layout.

    That it is being expected to do something that it was never designed for or used for for most of it’s life is neither here nor there.

  3. I think good OCR software has extended the lifetime of PDFs somewhat. Unless the PDF file is inaccessible (due to locking or DRM), you can grab the text and bung it into a useful, truly transferable format like ePub.

    However, PDFs were designed to be a “snapshot” of what you saw on the screen, so they are inherently image files. This makes them unsuitable for ereaders.

  4. Do not think that the future demise of Flash will somehow obsolete PDFs and their flowability. Adobe is an incredibly smart company, and they are migrating to HTML5 in a big way, which works on iPad and iPhone. This direction will guarantee that PDFs will be around for a long, long time to come.

  5. Right on Gary Frost! Anyone who uses computer screens will use PDF to view the material.
    And if you want any useful or scientific journal article, it will be in PDF. All that other stuff is for people who text or sext, i.e. short attention-spanned.

  6. I am not completely disagreeing, but for tech books re-flowing is, in many cases, a disaster.

    That is why I am buying my iPad: because its screen is wide enough to display a PDF book, frozen as it is, in a readable size. I am not even attempting reading PDF docs on my mobile (4.7” Nexus 4), it is too small for that. So yes, PDF is for printing and for big screens.

    But I also tried to read tech books in Amazon kindle reader. Yes, the plain text is readable, but the code examples, that span multiple pages with the code lines that wrap and take multiple lines are not.

    But I know, who reads books anyway? 🙂 We seem to learn everything from blogposts and youtube videos nowadays.

  7. As a book designer it is a big blow that there is no alternative, cross-platform solution for PDFs. EBooks are ugly and have zero design elements in them because the viewer can mess with font sizes and typefaces. I’m struggling to find a solution for image-heavy books with beautiful design that looks like they were intended to look.

    Various proprietary solutions have come and gone, all have been very expensive. PDFs have been the only viable, low cost alternative to print. But none of the on-line stores, Amazon, et al, will handle them.

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