A nostalgic look back at the ISO PDF/X standard

In this blog post, Martin Bailey recalls his days as the first chair of the ISO PDF/X task force and how the standard has developed over the last 20 years.

Over the last few years there has been quite an outpouring of nostalgia around PDF. That was first for PDF itself, but at the end of 2021 we reached two decades since the first publication of an ISO PDF/X standard.

I’d been involved with PDF/X in its original home of CGATS (the Committee for Graphic Arts Technical Standards, the body accredited by ANSI to develop US national standards for printing) for several years before it moved to ISO. And then I became the first chair of the PDF/X task force in ISO. So I thought I’d add a few words to the pile, and those have now been published on the PDF Association’s web site at https://www.pdfa.org/the-route-to-pdf-x-and-where-we-are-now-a-personal-history/.

I realised while I was writing it that it really was a personal history for me. PDF/X was one of the first standards that I was involved in developing, back when the very idea of software standards was quite novel. Since then, supported and encouraged by Harlequin and Global Graphics Software, I’ve also worked on standards and chaired committees in CIP3, CIP4, Ecma, the Ghent Working Group, ISO and the PDF Association (I apologise if I’ve missed any off that list!).

It would be easy to assume that working on all of those standards meant that I knew a lot about what we were standardising from day one. But the reality is that I’ve learned a huge amount of what I know about print from being involved, and from talking to a lot of people.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) only take into account your own use cases while writing a standard. Most of the time a standard that satisfies only a single company should just be proprietary working practice instead. It’s only valuable as a standard if it enables technologies, products and workflows in many different companies.

That sounds as if it should be obvious, but the second major lesson was something that has been very useful in environments outside of standards as well. An awful lot of people assume that everyone cares a lot about the things that they care about, and that everything else is unimportant. As an example, next time you’re at a trade show (assuming they ever come back in their historical form) take a look and see how many vendors claim to have product for “the whole workflow”. Trust me, for production printing, nobody has product for the whole workflow. Each one just means that they have product for the bits of the workflow that they think are important. The trouble is that you can’t actually print stuff effectively and profitably if all you have is those ‘important’ bits. To write a good standard you have to take off the blinkers and see beyond what your own products and workflows are doing. And in doing that I’ve found that it also teaches you more about what your own ‘important’ parts of the workflow need to do.

Along the way I’ve also met some wonderful people and made some good friends. Our conversations may have a tendency to dip in and out of print geek topics, but sometimes those are best covered over a beer or two!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey, Distinguished Technologist, Global Graphics Software, is currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a new guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

Further reading

  1. Compliance, compatibility, and why some tools are more forgiving of bad PDFs
  2. What the difference between PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4

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The healthy buzz of conversation at PDF 2.0 interops

Last week was the first PDF 2.0 interop event, hosted by Global Graphics in Cambridge, UK on behalf of the PDF Association. The interop was an opportunity for developers from various companies working on their support for PDF 2.0 to get together and share sample files, and to process them in their own solutions. If a sample file from one vendor isn’t read correctly by a product from another vendor the developers can then figure out why, and fix either the creation tool or the consumer, or even both, depending on the exact reason for that failure.

When we make our own PDF sample files to test the Harlequin RIP there’s always a risk that the developer making the file and the developer writing the code to consume it will make the same assumptions or misread the specification in the same way. That makes testing files created by another vendor invaluable, because it validates all of those assumptions and possible misinterpretations as well.

It’s pretty early in the PDF 2.0 process (the standard itself will probably be published later this month), which means that some vendors are not yet far enough through their own development cycles to get involved yet. But that actually makes this kind of event even more valuable for those who participate because there are no currently shipping products out there that we could just buy and make sample files with. And the last thing that any of us want to do as vendors is to find out about incompatibilities after our products are shipped and in our customers’ hands.

I can tell you that our testing and discussions at the interop in Cambridge were extremely useful in finding a few issues that our internal testing had not identified. We’re busy correcting those, and will be taking updated software to the next interop, in Boston, MA on June 12th and 13th.

If you’re a Harlequin OEM or member of the Harlequin Partner Network you can also get access to our PDF 2.0 preview code to test against your own or other partners’ products; just drop me a line. If you’re using Harlequin in production I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until we release our next major version!

If you’re a software vendor with products that consume or create PDF and you’re already working on your PDF 2.0 support I’d heartily recommend registering for the June interop. I don’t know of any more efficient way to identify defects in your implementation so you can fix them before your customers even see them. Visit https://www.pdfa.org/event/pdf-interoperability-workshop-north-america/ to get started.

And if you’re a PDF software vendor and you’re not working on PDF 2.0 yet … time to start your planning!

Getting to know PDF 2.0 – update from Down Under

Are you ready for PDF 2.0? Register now for the PDF 2.0 interoperability workshops in the UK and USA.

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software
Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

I’ve been in the ISO PDF committee meeting in Sydney, Australia for a couple of days this week to review the comments submitted to the most recent ballot on PDF 2.0. Over 100 comments were received, including some complex issues around digital signatures, structure tagging (especially lists), optional content, document parts and soft masks. In all cases the committee was able to reach a consensus on what should be done for PDF 2.0.

The plan is now for one more ballot, the responses to which will be reviewed in Q2 next year, with an expectation that final text for PDF 2.0 will be delivered to ISO for publication shortly thereafter.

So we’re still on track for publication next year.

All of which means that it’s past time that a couple of PDF’s unsung heroes were acknowledged. The project leaders for PDF 2.0 have invested very substantial amounts of time and mental energy updating text in response to comments and ballots over the last several years. When somebody like me requests a change it’s the project leaders who help to double-check that every last implication of that change is explored to ensure that we don’t have any inconsistency.

So a big thank you to Duff Johnson of the PDF Association and Peter Wyatt of CISRA (Canon)!

It’s also worth noting that one of the significant improvements in PDF 2.0 that probably won’t get highlighted elsewhere is that the text now is much more consistent. When you’re writing a detailed technical document 1000 pages long it’s inevitable that some disconnections between different sections will creep in. PDF 2.0 illustrates the value of a broad group of people from many countries and many industries reviewing text in the ISO process: we’ve managed to stamp on many of those cases in this new version.