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Another 25 years: why the PDF won’t die anytime soon

Despite many predictions of its imminent demise, the PDF continues to flourish. The success of the 25-year old format is particularly puzzling for younger software engineers and technology enthusiasts. How can a simple file format designed to print correctly dominate modern business communications? While PDFs may be useful for archiving and storage, why do businesses continue to rely on PDF-based forms and workflows? Despite its shortcomings, I predict that the PDF is here to stay for the next 25 years. This is because the PDF has stood the test of time despite its many drawbacks. While the file format may lose out in niche areas (where newer technologies will dominate), PDFs aren’t going away any time soon.

In the book Antifragile, author Nassim Taleb describes a phenomenon called the Lindy Effect. While enjoying cheesecake at Lindy (a New York deli), mathematicians found that a Broadway show that lasted one hundred days was very likely to last another hundred days. Likewise, a show that lasted two hundred days was likely to survive another two hundred. In other words, time itself was the best predictor for how ideas, books, systems and technologies can stand the test of time. Technologies that have been around for a long period of time (such as books) are likely to last indefinitely despite the threat of supposedly better technologies (such as e-book readers).

Applied to PDF technology, this phenomenon suggests that the file format is likely to be around for the foreseeable future. Competing file formats, such as Microsoft’s XPS format, HTML, as well as XML, have failed to dethrone the PDF in the last decade. More recently, a range of software-as-a-service startups have developed solutions for workflows dominated by PDFs such as electronic invoicing, document editing, contract signing, and form filling. This has led to a new wave of calls for the ultimate demise of the PDF.

My view remains that the PDF is likely to surprise everyone (again) and remain the dominant file format. Looking at electronic invoicing, many predicted that software-based solutions would dominate this area thanks to significant government support (such as new EU regulations governing e-invoicing standards) and the strength of new technologies. Despite the hype, the fastest growing method for electronic invoicing is (surprise!) the PDF. According to CloudTrade, a British provider of electronic invoicing solutions, the convenience of sending a PDF invoice via email is hard to beat. While many startups are targeting electronic invoicing with software-based solutions, most customers are reluctant to move away from a trusted and universally accepted solution such as a PDF invoice.

Instead of killing the PDF, startups (such as CloudTrade) are likely to make the file format even more valuable in the future. Ultimately, there is no universally accepted file format that can credibly compete against the PDF. While the format has many shortcomings, this is a business opportunity to create new solutions as most customers wish to keep using the file format. Following 25 years of success, the PDF has a bright future ahead of it.