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The PDF ISO Standard

Much is being made today of Adobe Systems announcement that “it intends to release the full Portable Document Format (PDF) 1.7 specification to AIIM, the Enterprise Content Management Association, for the purpose of publication by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).”

The main hubbub surrounds the contention of several bloggers that this represents another attack by Adobe on Microsoft and its recently-released XPS format, “the PDF killer.” Quite probably so. It’s a subject worth examining, although not superficially.
For today I’d like to consider what it means to become an ISO standard. I think of this as the equivalent of getting a lifetime achievement award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars). It means you were pretty good, but you’re now almost dead.

As of December 31, 2005, there were 15,649 published ISO standards, with 1,240 released in that year alone. Under the heading of electronics, information technology and telecommunications, there were 2,447 published standards. How many does your organization conform to? If this impresses you, remember to celebrate World Standards Day on October 14! And for even more fun, there’s the new isomemory game ( I hear it’s fun for the whole family!

You can’t read the published standards on the ISO site without giving them a chunk of cash first. That says something in itself; I’m just not sure what. But you can see listings of the bodies buried in the ISO graveyard. For example ISO 12639:2004 is the TIFF/IT standard, once used widely in the prepress industry, but no longer a player. You can however download it for 176 Swiss francs, 8700 Yugoslav dinars, or about $140 Yankee dollars.

ISO 6804:1991 covers “rubber hoses and hose assemblies for washing-machines and dishwashers — Specification for inlet hoses.” It’s yours for 48 Swiss francs!

I could go on (and am tempted to do so).

At the same time, there are certain relevant standards that have crept into ISO…as Adobe mentions in its press release, all of the PDF sibling are now ISO standards (PDF/X, PDF-X1, etc.). The OpenDocument Format is a standard. And so on.

So what is the significance of becoming an ISO standard when your standard is one that people actually use? Historically, none; more recently, some.

As the publishing industry has evolved into an ever-more-complex microsystem, more and more organizations (and indeed states, countries, etc.) are choosing to endorse standards that have been accepted and published by ISO.

Will more organizations use PDF if it’s an ISO standard? Probably not. That is, unless Microsoft gains real traction with XPS. There are some very high-stakes games being played against the Microsoft/Windows juggernaut, and standards have become a key weapon in the game. Adobe has played a major trump card. Microsoft: your move.


  1. Michael Jahn

    Ah – such prose! Adobe, walking the walk. By supporting the development of PDF/X , an ISO standard, Adobe become the darling of the prepress industry. Next, Adobe then advanced PDF as an exchange format within the Adobe suite of applications. Now, even better – a file format for every digital document exchange – EKGs to Mortgage documents and beyond! So, yes, this announcement seems like the straight flush. The Royal flush would be if the Microsoft Office team did a “CS” like thing, where the common native format for exchange between Word, Excel and PowerPoint was a published XML based file that the world embraced. XPS 2.0? Anything less and the only way to win this fight would be to buy Adobe and face the wrath of Neelie Kroes.

  2. Thaddeus McIlroy

    By the way, you can download the PDF 1.7 spec for free still:
    Think how much more this will cost when it’s an ISO standard!

  3. Adam

    I wonder if Adobe (or AIIM) will go with dual release or “Co-operative Agreement” in the same manner that the International Color Consortium did when they ISO’d the ICC Spec.
    I never understood why you had to pay ISO for access to a PDF. Maybe I’m just too young and have bit the open standard (and open access) bullet.

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