The PDF ISO Standard

April 3rd, 2007

Much is being made of Adobe Systems recent 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 iso memory game. I hear it’s fun for the whole family! (Update July, 2009…I can’t find it on the site any more.)

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”: 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.