The PDF – we can't do without it

Not all document formats have managed to become a standard and are nowhere near to deliver what they promise. So what can or should we expect from a format? What are the most important quality characteristics of a format and how can we find out whether a format is ‘good’? Where do the dangers lurk and how can we avoid them? The choice of format is very important, especially in the field of long-term archiving. Documents that have been archived for several years in an unsuitable format or in poor quality can have serious consequences.

PDF and the ISO standards

When it comes to archiving, one format stands out from the rest: PDF, the native format of Adobe Acrobat. Originally designed for the exchange of documents irrespective of platform or software, PDF has firmly established itself over the past 21 years and is now implemented by almost every software house that generates electronic documents. But the increasing use of PDF has also raised fears of a dependency on Adobe. To overcome this, Adobe and some users and industrial enterprises have committed themselves to making PDF the industry standard and developing it through the ISO boards. The first result of this initiative was the publication of the ISO 32000-1 standard in 2008, based on Adobe’s PDF 1.7 version. ISO is currently working on the PDF 2.0 version.

PDF’s range of functions, which has grown considerably over the years, is not suitable or necessary for every area of application. That is why ISO has developed a number of substandards based on the PDF standard and specifically tailored to the most important applications.

The PDF/X, PDF/A, PDF/E, PDF/VT and PDF/UA standards are not separate file formats. Instead, they are based on the overriding PDF 1.7 standard, defining the requirements and prohibitions for the intended use in each case. These rules limit PDF 1.7’s range of functions accordingly and form a defined subset.

PDF for long-term electronic archiving

Although PDF was developed for the exchange of documents irrespective of the operating system or the creator/viewer’s software, the format on its own is not suitable for archiving. That is why PDF/A was developed.

PDF/A is the name given to a range of standards that describe the characteristics of PDF files for the long-term electronic archiving of documents. The purpose of the standards is to ensure that the archived documents remain accessible in the long term and that they are self-documenting, unambiguous, searchable, and described with metadata. For these reasons, encryption is prohibited, fonts and color profiles must be embedded, alternative and dynamic content must be removed, and references to external content must be removed.

A PDF file can also correspond to several substandards at once. This is particularly important when archiving PDF/X and PDF/VT-conform files that must also meet the PDF/A standard. The range of functions of a file that requires conformance with several standards will therefore be limited to the number of functions offered by the individual standards.

Format vs. format

PDF is a very capable format, but by no means an allrounder. A large number of formats have been optimized for specific uses (see Fig. 3).

When it comes to describing the pros and cons of file formats, many authors automatically look to PDF and publish informed – and sometimes less informed – comparisons between these formats and PDF. However, to make the comparison as fair as possible, we should not lose sight of the intended use. Comparisons make sense only if the areas of application overlap, which brings us to the most frequently discussed areas.

Incoming mail

When it comes to images in scanned documents, TIFF is neither better nor worse than PDF. The advantages of PDF become apparent only if there are additional requirements that go beyond the mere representation of the page. In addition, a TIFF archive should not be migrated blindly to a PDF archive if no added value compensates for the effort. The criteria for a migration from TIFF to PDF are shown in Fig. 4.

Work documents

Office formats are used most frequently for work documents. OOXML is the native format of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. However, it is not possible to make a fair comparison between OOXML and PDF. OOXML has been designed to create and edit documents. It contains structure information and makes readable text available (copy/paste). To describe PDF as an author format or even as suitable for editing would be rather bold. On the other hand, as a format PDF scores highly with its fixed layout and its suitability for archiving, which OOXML is definitely not suitable for, even though some users would like to think so.

The XPS and PDF/A subsets, however, are comparable and have many things in common, such as static content. The motive behind developing XPS was to eliminate incompatibilities between the document format and the operating system. For instance, the XPS graphics model is the same as the new WPF graphics subsystem in Vista. More precisely, XPS elements are a subset of XAML, the description language for documents and user interfaces contained in WPF.

This example in particular shows the importance of the dispersion of a format. PDF/A is now the de facto standard for archiving; in contrast, XPS is almost unknown. Similar conclusions can be drawn about the Microsoft-independent Office format ODF.

Outgoing mail

Print data streams in PostScript, PCL and AFP format are sometimes archived directly, but more usually after conversion to TIFF (COLD). Over the past years, there has been talk of replacing ‘tiffing’, as it is sometimes known, with PDF/A conversion. Criteria such as file size (necessary to embed fonts), conversion effort and final quality play an important role. There is no archiving standard for PostScript and PCL, but work is currently underway on an AFP/A standard as an alternative to PDF/A.

These considerations are particularly relevant for companies that want to implement their own archiving solution for outgoing mail. If a company-wide archiving solution is preferred, then PDF/A is usually the obvious choice.

File formats

  • TIFF: Exchange format for raster images (scanning, archiving)

  • PostScript/PCL: Page description language for printing

  • PDF: Exchange of documents with fixed layout and interactive elements

  • AFP: Transactional printing with variable data

  • Office formats: Proprietary format for work documents within the company

  • OOXML: XML-based Open Office format of Microsoft

  • ODF: Open Office format in competition with Microsoft

  • XML: Storage of object-oriented data with reference to a schema

  • XMP: Extensible metadata format based on

  • XPS: XML-based page description language of Microsoft

  • EPUB: Format for publishing documents online

  • PRC: Storage of 3D data and attributes

  • Multimedia: Numerous formats for audio and video streaming

3D data for engineering

An ISO standard called PRC (Product Representation Compact)is available for 3D data that can be manipulated interactively and is enriched with descriptions (e.g. parts lists). PRC can be embedded in PDF and is an important feature of the PDF/E standard. PDF/E-2 is designed in a way that enables conform files to be archived directly.


There are numerous proprietary formats for metadata and often it is stored directly in the archive system. However, it is strongly recommended to use a standard format. ISO offers XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform), which is based on XML; it can be embedded in almost any image format (e.g. JPEG and TIFF) and is an important component of PDF/A. In addition, XML data can be embedded directly in PDF/A-3, such as for electronic invoicing (ZUGFeRD).


Audio and video files can also be archived, of course, either individually or as embedded data streams in PDF and other formats. However, no generally recognized standards for these formats exist at present, although this might change in the future with EPUB, a format used for electronic publication, playing a driving role.

Archiving – is PDF/A the solution?

In a world of electronic documents, PDF/A is certain to fulfill most file format requirements. But this by no means applies to all archived material. For interactive communication tools in particular, such as websites, programs and multimedia content, new standards are required. The ISO experts are therefore not likely to run out of work any time soon.

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Dr. Hans Bärfuss

Written by Dr. Hans Bärfuss

Dr. Hans Bärfuss is the founder and managing director of PDF Tools AG. He is a delegate of the Swiss Standards Association (SNV) for ISO and helps standardize file formats and digital signatures. He is one of the initiators and founders of the PDF Association and Chairman of the Swiss Chapter.

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