Adobe Public Sector Blog

PDF and XML – They compete don’t they?

As an employee of Adobe and a LONG time user of the Internet, I am a big fan of PDF. I wanted to make sure I made that point clear right up front. However, as a technologist and a LONG time user of the Internet, I am just as big a fan of XML! And likewise, I wanted to make THAT clear as well.

Before jumping in, I would like to refer you over to a couple, somewhat more historic blog entries from one of my colleagues, Jim King. Jim is a PDF Architect and a Senior Principal Scientist for Adobe and most certainly knows this topic better than most anyone I know. Check these entries out – XML forXML Documents. I bring these ideas back to the forefront as it seems perhaps the lessons need to be revisited within the context of open and transparent government.

As the US government continues to have an open dialog with the country on the topic of transparency, a number of seemingly age old confusions have surfaced again. In particular to this entry, is the discussion that tends to pit PDF and XML as competitors. I always find this particular discussion interesting because I tend to believe it is unrealistic to suggest that any particular technology is the right answer to all the questions! Why can we not think of these two technologies, both incredibly viable and well adopted open standards, as complimentary, recognizing that they are each useful for different things.

Let’s explore for a minute. While doing so, let’s not get too wrapped up in what CAN be done, rather let’s focus more on what IS being done. There’s something to be said for technology adoption. I always like to remember the old adage, “Just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should!”.

With that lead in, it can successfully be argued that the success of XML can be best attributed to it’s usage as a language for describing and sharing data, especially for use between systems and applications. Keep in mind, I am not suggesting this is it’s ONLY usage, just that it is it’s most prevalent use. Amongst it many useful traits, it allows for an easy means to serialize data and to subsequently parse the data for system use. The ability to be ‘file-based’ as well as streamed suits today’s modern data-sharing architectures, allowing it to be used for a wide variety of solutions and applications.

Likewise, it can be successfully argued that PDF is the preferred, defacto means to publish and share electronic documents today. This is particularly true with regards to ‘final format’ documents. You would be very hard pressed to find anyone using an Internet-connected computer that has not interacted with a PDF. With well over 93% of the connected computers in the world having the Adobe Reader installed, the infrastructure is already in place and the use experience of working with a reasonable electronic facsimile of a paper-based document is completely intuitive for all users. Add to that a plethora of human centric capabilities, and it is obvious why PDF is so widely deployed.

Given that the government has the requirement to share information that is more traditionally defined as data AND information that is document based, it seems obvious that PDF and XML can and SHOULD co-exist peacefully within the transparency fabric of any open government strategy.

In my next post, I will dig into some of the perspectives that create the sense of competition and offer my thoughts to alternative ways to address the wide and varied requirements of an open and transparent government.

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  • By Mike - 7:23 AM on January 17, 2010  

    I have never thought of XML and PDF as competing technologies. They both seem to do different things to me. I use both technologies.
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