PDFs have been around for a long time—more than two decades, in fact. As the platforms displaying the format have evolved beyond a simple desktop, more and more tools and components proliferate behind the scenes to ensure those documents crisply render and display on whatever application or screen they pop up in.

Since its inception by Adobe in the early 1990s, the Portable Document Format has grown into an open-source ISO standard, as well as the most popular and widely used document format worldwide. To maintain relevance and dominance through the age of the Web (and now the age of mobile and the cloud), there is increasingly greater variety: more SDKs, more toolkits, more drivers, providers and services. These days, PDF component technology is anything but simple.

“As the technology has evolved, there are so many players now in the market that there are many, many ways of processing PDF files,” said Dany Amiouny, CTO of Amyuni. “Often, developers and users are unaware that not all PDFs are the same. A PDF that looks fine onscreen is not necessarily well-structured.”

According to Amiouny, the duty of PDF component and toolkit providers today is pursuing a well-structured PDF that stays optimized for processing regardless of how the technology and platforms around it change over time. As the range of applications and use cases for PDFs continues to expand, he explained, the elasticity and malleability of the format must change with it.

“A few years from now, that same PDF will be archived, and it has to be delivered with whatever version of Acrobat Reader and any other viewer that’s out there,” Amiouny said. “It’s very important to know if the PDFs being generated are well-structured and optimized, not just on the screen.”

An increasingly crowded market
As PDFs have been asked to present more types of content on different operating systems and devices, a market that once was easily navigable has turned into a veritable bazaar of providers. Different niches have emerged as companies home in on particular aspects of PDF components and tooling, be it PDF creation, conversion, rasterization, optimization, security, or a more comprehensive solution across one or more platforms.

“Today there is much more competition,” said Amiouny. “There are many open-source tools out there, many more players in the PDF market. When it started there were maybe four or five different types of components, and today there are many, many more. With all these players in the PDF market, everyone tries to differentiate in some particular areas. There are so many things we can do with a PDF that not all the players do everything perfectly, and it’s difficult to be strong in all the areas of working with PDFs.”

PDF usage by corporations and individuals has skyrocketed, driving a proportional demand for PDF products in all contexts, according to Gerald Holmann, president of Qoppa Software, including end-user products as well as back-end production and processing. As PDF processes have become more complex, he explained, the demand for PDF components has increased as well, as they provide more flexibility than traditional turnkey solutions.

“We see commercial components moving toward more complex PDF functions as a way for companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors as well as from open-source components,” Holmann said. “The PDF format is fairly static, so we don’t see much change in that direction. However, PDF documents are being used in new ways by businesses and consumers, which will provide new opportunities for PDF functions and products.”

PDFs across platforms
On top of the growing list of things PDFs and PDF components are asked to do, technology providers have also been forced to grapple with the evolution of the platform landscape and the move to different mediums.

Desktop application developers, Web developers, mobile developers and cloud application developers all want to integrate PDF functionality into their apps. That may mean utilizing PDF component toolkits for iOS, OS X, Windows, Windows Phone, Android and the Web, working with programming languages and frameworks from Java, .NET and C++ to ActiveX, JavaScript, C#, Objective-C and HTML. The result, according to Catherine Andersz, director of business development at PDFTron, is a frustratingly fragmented PDF toolkit market in an increasingly cross-platform world.

“We find that developers don’t want to use one toolkit on Windows and one toolkit on iOS, and another toolkit on Android,” Andersz said. “A cross-platform API allows consistent rendering and viewing. The same file that opens on iOS can open on Android and all the other platforms.

“The problem out there with some toolkits is that there are so many pre-producers out there producing so many types of PDF files, and they tend to corrupt it into files that shouldn’t even be called PDFs, really. A lot of the files are just not processable or viewable via different toolkits. We need to make sure, as much as possible, to adhere to the PDF specification to assure that we support and we create PDFs to the most compliant way possible. “

The specification Andersz referred to is the ISO 32000-1 standard and its subsets, also known as PDF 1.7. The standard, officially published by the ISO in 2008, was based on the PDF 1.7 specification Adobe released royalty-free in 2007. A new version of the standard, codenamed PDF 2.0, is under development by the ISO and is set to be published sometime in 2015 or 2016.

Amiouny sees the standard as a calming force in PDF evolution, and one that sets the technology up for stability in the long run. “The technology has evolved very quickly the last few years, especially since PDFs became an ISO standard,” he said.

“We don’t think PDFs will evolve as much as they have in the past few years. There have been some proponents for changing things in the PDF area, but we haven’t seen much action aside from working toward PDF 2.0. So we see that, fortunately for everyone, the technology has stabilized quite a lot. There may be improvement, but not so many drastic changes going forward.”

Compliance with the PDF standard is one way for PDF components and toolkits to ensure a PDF renders and optimizes correctly regardless of the files it’s dealing with, but Andersz and PDFTron CTO Ivan Nincic believe that’s only part of the puzzle when dealing with a file that may be completely broken.

“One problem with PDFs is that they can be huge,” said Nincic. “They can be print-quality files or very large in file size and very slow to render. So it’s essential that when you put the document on the Web, it can be efficiently viewed on any device. It goes beyond compliance. People are accustomed to the notion that if Acrobat can display a PDF, your application should too. Just implementing a PDF standard is a small part of implementing support for all the incompatible and broken PDF files out there.”

Ultimately, Andersz and Nincic believed developers should seek out a cross-platform PDF tooling solution optimized for the Web along with different mobile devices. The availability of cheap PDF solutions such as Apple’s built-in iOS PDF viewer provide developers convenient solutions, but according to Andersz, this leaves developers at the mercy of third-party support.

“We see a lot of these single-platform toolkits that build things on top and are really just wrappers for third-party and sometimes even open-source technologies,” she said. “So there’s a bit of a disconnect with customers. They see an inexpensive toolkit and wonder how that’s possible, how the technology is different. There’s a gap in understanding that some toolkits are built from the ground up and are compliant to the PDF specification in every possible way, and other toolkits are just wrappers.”

Exploring the mobile, Web and cloud frontiers
“In the cloud, PDFs are becoming more integral with the Web experience,” said Nincic. “In the past, PDFs were kind of just a binary blob that you required a browser plug-in to access and view. That’s all changing. More and more websites are offering PDF viewing and cooperation experiences as an integral part of the website itself.”

A decade ago, the PDF ecosystem was much smaller, and Adobe was the main player controlling the spec. The ecosystem revolved around Acrobat, which essentially became an ISO standard. In the years since, Apple has adopted the PDF as a format in iOS and the Mac, Google adopted the PDF for printing, and even Microsoft introduced basic rendering in Windows 8.1. Mobile, Web and cloud-based applications have made the PDF more common. Everyone is essentially using them in some way, shape or form, and on the developer side it demands a higher level of functionality.

“In the past decade, the need for higher-level PDF features has grown considerably,” said ORPALIS sales manager and COO Elodie Tellier. “Before, you could find really good PDF SDKs delivering a wide range of low-level APIs. Now the developer requires more sophisticated functionalities; for instance, fast and accurate text extraction, large PDF merging and splitting, PDF encryption and DigiSign, and fast rasterization. Developers need both low-level and high-level sets of functionalities—such as color detection—that allows [developers] to dramatically reduce the size of embedded bitmaps within PDFs and on-the-fly PDF/A composition.”

These intricate functional capabilities are what will empower developers and PDF component providers to keep up with trends in the PDF market. PDFTron’s Andersz sees more and more businesses requiring a Web and mobile PDF experience that works without hassle on the various devices an end user may have at any given time. When an enterprise switches from a desktop or native mobile application to a Web or cloud-based solution, the PDF components and toolkits facilitating that shift must be up for the challenge.

“It’s no longer possible to simply have an iOS app. You can’t depend on most users having an iPad or iPhone,” Andersz said. “Nowadays, the Android market is equally strong and might override the iOS market in some ways. There are still lots of business users on desktop, especially in government and the financial sector. The key is really to think, what will help them adopt their applications and their solutions across platforms? Yes, you can offer native SDKs for all these different platforms, but the Web is really starting to be the key that really allows you to code once and deploy to all these devices via the browser.”

What should developers look for in a good PDF component solution?
Dany Amiouny, president and CTO of Amyuni:
“Developers need to learn that it’s more about the internal structure of a PDF file. Before choosing a PDF driver, developers should at least understand the basics. When comparing PDF drivers, they need to be able to understand whether the PDF is well structured and optimized or if it has issues.

“In many cases, PDFs are generated off servers. If it takes one second or five seconds to generate the PDF, driver performance can make a huge difference on a server that is generating thousands and thousands of PDFs every day. It’s about comparing the output, but also the performance: In how many seconds or milliseconds am I able to generate a PDF file? If you’re generating two PDFs a day, it doesn’t matter. If I’m building an application that’s going through servers or multiple users at the same time, it’s important to compare the performance of the libraries. Before really engaging and trying to find the right driver, developers need to understand the product itself.”

Elodie Tellier, sales manager and COO of ORPALIS: “As developers ourselves, we build the kind of PDF tools we’re looking for. They need to work fast on large documents, on any CPU and to work in multi-thread applications. The idea is to gain time without losing in quality and precision. The code writing based on the API should also be intuitive.”

Catherine Andersz, director of business development at PDFTron: “When looking at toolkits, it’s very important to do a thorough evaluation, making sure it works across the whole test suite of files that end users might be working with. For example, engineering documents can be very, very complex. If you just stick to a test on some basic files, it may work but if you do a proper test with lots of heavy, intensive documents, you’ll see what the true performance of the toolkit is. So evaluation with a full test suite is always very important. If they don’t have such a test suite, ask the vendor to provide you with some sample files and how it performs on different complex documents.”

Ivan Nincic, CTO of PDFTron: “In connection to that, I would say that inevitably there will be PDF-specific issues encountered that are so complex that there will be questions about files not rendering or problems with crashes. It is essential that developers investigate the support offered by a company, perhaps looking at forums and so forth to see what the scope of the support offered for the solution is.”

Gerald Holmann, president of Qoppa Software: “Above all else, developers should be looking for stability and robustness. Additionally, the PDF format is very complex and supports hundreds of different features, so developers should be looking for wide “feature coverage” in the products they select, to make sure that they will be able to handle PDFs from all sources. Most, if not all, document interchange in [business-to-business], [business-to-consumer] and [consumer-to-business] uses PDF, so PDF handling and processing is an absolute necessity for doing business. PDF components provide the flexibility to implement any PDF workflow according to specific needs.”

A guide to PDF component offerings
Accusoft’s PDF Xpress empowers developers to boost application functionality with easy PDF creation, editing, and the highest level of PDF compression available on the market—as much as 90%. Quickly compress one PDF (or an entire library) with just one parameter change to boost display and transmission speed while dramatically reducing archival footprint. Leverage PDF Xpress to build a PDF portfolio of multiple documents and document types.

ActivePDF: Over 14 years, ActivePDF has developed and refined a comprehensive collection of PDF automation tools that make development easy. ActivePDF helps avoid delays, downtime and headaches. More than 23,000 satisfied customers have chosen ActivePDF, from startups to Fortune 100 companies.

Adobe: A company defined by its market-leading PDF technology, Adobe offers a complete PDF component offering around its Acrobat PDF reader, including Adobe ExportPDF and the Adobe PDF Pack for converting and combining PDF files, and moving its entire PDF management suite to the cloud with Acrobat XI Pro for the Adobe Creative Cloud.

Amyuni: Amyuni provides developers and system administrators with high-performance PDF conversion and processing tools. Certified for Windows desktops and servers, Amyuni PDF Converter enables developers to easily integrate powerful PDF and PDF/A functionality into their applications with just a few lines of code. Amyuni PDF Creator produces optimized PDF documents and seamlessly integrates with COM, .NET, WinRT and Windows Phone applications.

Aspose: Aspose creates file format APIs that help .NET and Java developers work with documents. Aspose.Pdf for .NET and Aspose.Pdf for Java are APIs for creating, editing and converting PDF files. They support a wide range of features, from simple PDF file creation, through layout and formatting changes, to more complex operations like managing PDF forms, security and signatures. Aspose’s PDF APIs help speed up development with comprehensive functionality, free trials and responsive support.

ceTe: ceTe Software’s DynamicPDF product line, including the Core Suite, Merger, ReportWriter, Generator, Viewer, Rasterizer, PrintManager and Converter, provides developers access to a complete integrated PDF solution to create, interact with, transform and export PDFs. The DynamicPDF libraries and components have functionality for C# and .NET, Java, COM and ActiveX.

ComponentOne: ComponentOne, a division of GrapeCity, provides UI controls for application development. Its offering includes PDF controls for creating and viewing PDF documents in Windows, Web and Windows Store applications without requiring users to install Adobe Acrobat. With ComponentOne’s PDF control for WinForms, Silverlight, WPF, ASP.NET and WinRT XAML, users may generate and view full-featured reports with encryption, compression, outlining, hyperlinking, attachments, and everything else PDF users need.

ComponentPro: Ultimate PDF for .NET is a 100%-managed PDF document component that helps you add PDF capabilities in.NET applications. With a few lines of code, developers can create a complex PDF document from scratch, or load an existing PDF file without using any third-party libraries or ActiveX controls. The Ultimate PDF component also offers many features, including drawing text, image, tables and other shapes, compression, hyperlinks, security, and custom fonts. PDF files created using the Ultimate PDF component are compatible with all versions of Adobe Acrobat as well, as is the free version of Acrobat Viewer from Adobe.

Glyph & Cog: Glyph & Cog offers a full line of software components designed to help developers add PDF capability into their applications. Functionality includes PDF viewing, printing, text extraction, and more with cross-platform support for Windows, Mac and Linux. Glyph & Cog’s newest product is XpdfWidget/Qt, a PDF viewer widget for the Qt framework, suitable for desktop and embedded use.

LEADTOOLS: LEADTOOLS Document Imaging toolkits include a full suite of PDF SDK technology for viewing, editing, creating and converting PDF and Office formats. The Document Viewer framework includes an advanced set of tools such as text searching, annotations, memory-efficient paging, inertial scrolling and vector display. Developers can implement comprehensive PDF reading, writing and editing with support for the extraction of text, hyperlinks, bookmarks and metadata, as well as updating, splitting and merging pages from existing PDF documents.

ORPALIS: GdPicture.NET by ORPALIS offers extended support of the PDF format for .NET (C# and VB.NET) and non-managed applications written in VB6, Delphi, MS Access and more. Its numerous features include full Unicode support, PDF/A generation, digital signature support, PDF merging and splitting, PDF modification, PDF rasterization, and PDF creation with interactive form fields. With GdPicture.NET, you can also repair corrupted PDFs, add/extract fonts, and draw barcodes and annotations on documents.

PDFTron: PDFTron provides powerful cross-platform PDF APIs easing app development on all major mobile and desktop platforms with consistent, high-quality output, and top-notch performance on even the most complex files. PDFNet SDK APIs can be accessed from any language/platform (Xamarin/C#, JavaScript, C++, JAVA, Objective-C, etc.) providing support for annotation, collaboration, forms, digital signing, editing, printing, file conversion, redaction, and more. PDFTron’s WebViewer enables viewing and embedding of PDF, Office, and other formats in any HTML5 app on any device.

Persits Software: Persits Software’s AspPDF and AspPDF.NET are feature-packed server components for managing Adobe PDF documents for ASP and .NET environments, respectively. Their simple and intuitive programming interface enables a Web application to perform many useful PDF-related functions, such as form fill-in, HTML-to-PDF, and PDF-to-image conversion, text extraction, stamping, digital signing, automatic printing, barcode generation, and many others, in just a few lines of script. Free fully functional 30-day evaluation versions are available.

Qoppa: Qoppa Software offers an extensive suite of PDF libraries and visual components that cover all PDF processing needs. PDF Functions include creation and modification, assembly, conversion to images and HTML, automated printing, encryption and digital signatures, form fields, viewing and markup, optimization, and a lot more. Qoppa products provide the highest level of performance and reliability and are 100% Java, so they run on all servers and desktop operating systems.

TallComponents: TallComponents offers reliable and proven .NET class libraries to create, modify, convert, read, print and render PDF documents. The libraries are written entirely in C#, have no external dependencies such as Adobe Reader, and are characterized by an intuitive API combined with knowledgeable and fast support.

WebSupergoo: WebSupergoo’s ABCpdf .NET is designed for a combination of maximum power and ease of use, going directly to PDF for blazing speed. ABCpdf supports a wide range of input and output formats, from PDF, HMTL and XPS to SVG, EPS and DOCX. The product is fully color space-aware for importing, construction and rendering, and provides sophisticated operations for the analysis, deconstruction and reconstruction of documents.