Who would have thought the humble PDF would become so ubiquitous, or that tools for managing PDFs could be so powerful?

It’s been a tumultuous year for a file format that prefers a low profile. In early 2010, Adobe’s Portable Document Format, an ISO standard since 2008, made security headlines when it was named a vector for the Aurora attack spread via social engineering and possibly launched by Chinese spies.

Despite that setback, the PDF creation and conversion market is burgeoning thanks to corporate document workflow applications, government digital archiving efforts, the proliferation of e-books and mobile devices, and a “greening” of the office.

Andrew Cochran, founder of CeTe Software and a 10-year PDF components veteran, predicted, “The PDF market’s not going to disappear anytime soon.”

A flexible new Acrobat
PDF’s ascendancy comes down to “today’s critical challenge of communicating and collaborating with widely dispersed teams of colleagues, partners and customers,” said Kevin M. Lynch, vice president and general manager of Adobe Acrobat. As document life-cycle management grows ever more important, however, the channel is changing from e-mail and servers to content hubs a la Microsoft SharePoint, integrated workflow solutions or even cloud offerings such as Acrobat.com services.

When it comes to PDF, start with the mother ship: Adobe Acrobat. Launching its10th version in November, the company has fully bridged the corporate and creative ends of its product line with Acrobat X.

How? Acrobat X achieves the impossible by making PDFs seem positively fun. Now, users can create PDFs from Web pages; create fillable forms; seamlessly add multimedia or Flash content to Microsoft Office files or in PDFs before exporting to Office; search paper scans; add comments to embedded videos at precise frames; and send large files using Adobe Send Now. The new Acrobat has an improved OCR engine, plus options for saving smaller files than ever before. Perhaps the piece that’s drawn the most attention is Acrobat’s PDF Portfolios feature.

Introduced with Acrobat 9, PDF portfolios, which combine PDFs, forms, HTML and multimedia in an attractive full-screen format, have undergone an extreme makeover in Acrobat 10. While they’re currently only viewable in Adobe Reader 9 or higher, Acrobat X can export a portfolio as a website for Flash-capable browsers. For now, portfolios are unique to Acrobat.

“Adobe hasn’t made the portfolio spec available to us yet. When they do, we will provide access to that sometime next year,” said Steve Wilson, product director for Accusoft Pegasus.

“A key part of our mission at Aspose is to keep on top of emerging standards as they come out,” said Billy Lundie, product manager for the Aspose Scotland Team. “We already have support for the key PDF subsets across our products, and support for the portfolio element of the PDF standard is on our road map.”

Feeding the PDF food chain
Acrobat and Reader may be the original PDF creators and consumers, but security concerns are one reason the “PDF ecosystem” that Adobe has fomented is flourishing.

“We partner with Foxit software for PDF rendering because their rendering engine doesn’t have nearly the vulnerabilities compared to the Acrobat rendering engine,” said CeTe’s Cochran. “Part of that is JavaScript. The vulnerabilities are not with the public standard. Rendering is the main area where you would see security problems.”

“We own our IP. That allows us to customize for customer needs, add features and thwart attacks,” said Eugene Xiong, president and founder of Foxit. “In the past 12-18 months, security has been a primary issue around PDFs. Our rapid security response initiative allows us to address threats faster than our competitors.”

Another concern is performance. Where PDF tools of the past may have struggled with reliability and errors, according to Foxit, the new goal is scalability. Foxit claims it has maximized efficiency on multicore servers to improve performance over competing technology.

“Some tests were done at Microsoft with Foxit,” said Xiong. “We went through 16GB of information across 84 different files. We were able to crawl and index them in less than 10 minutes, while a competitor took more than eight hours for the same test.”

The PDF tools market breaks down into two main categories: creation and manipulation. “Many tools which allow conversion to/from PDF will provide only limited control over advanced PDF features,” said Aspose’s Lundie. “Also, some tools primarily for creating and manipulating PDFs will lack comprehensive conversion features. For example, there are general-purpose tools for creating PDFs that also support basic conversion from other formats. However, the quality of these conversions is usually very poor compared to a dedicated Microsoft Word component which specializes in that particular format.”

In addition to knowing which document formats your solution will need to support or convert, users should review the PDF features they’ll be needing, such as compression, encryption, graphs or tables, said Lundie.

Not surprisingly, considering its imaging technology credentials and handwriting, bar code and character-recognition products, Accusoft Pegasus emphasizes the visual nature of its PDF solutions, especially around creating searchable image-over-text documents from scanned images such as faxes, medical records and tax returns.

“If you’re building a database app that’s storing scanned images, you want to make that file as small as possible. You want to not only compress those images without too much loss, you also want to be able to segment out that PDF and make sure everything is compressed ideally,” said Accusoft’s Wilson.

As do many PDF tool vendors, “We offer free evaluations of our software, so sometimes we get people who just need to create PDFs, but then see they can do other things with Accusoft like adding watermarks to documents,” he added. “The advantage is, as they get more advanced with their use of PDF, it’s all the same toolkit and same API from us.”

Seeking document preservation
Though experts at Accusoft Pegasus, Aspose, CeTe and Foxit said they’ve yet to detect strong customer demand for portfolios, there is plenty of interest in PDF/A, the archival subset of the standard. Chalk this up to European Union requirements for standard formatting of digital archives, which has produced more market pressure than in the U.S.

Apago, Callas Software, Compart Systemhaus, LuraTech, Nuance, PDF Tools AG all offer products for creating and validating PDF/A files. Further, Apache’s Formatting Object Processor, based on the W3C’s XSL-FO standard, supports the minimal PDF/A profile, PDF/A-1b.

To maximize readability decades into the future, PDF/A files cannot contain audio or video, JavaScript, executables, or encryption, among other requirements. Achieving the archival standard, however, is difficult unless it’s planned from the PDF’s inception. Again, it’s wise for developers to check tool documentation carefully: Some U.S. vendors are only just beginning to investigate PDF/A or offer nascent support.

Security or rights management is another area where mileage varies wildly, especially amid reports that such measures are widely circumvented. Nevertheless, redaction and encryption are on the menu for many vendors, including Adobe and Aspose.

“Aspose.Words supports the PDF Digital Signature standard directly in line with the requests of our customers,” said Lundie. “For more sophisticated security, Aspose.Pdf.Kit may be used alongside any of our individual products to encrypt PDF documents with either 40-bit or 128-bit encryption. Master and user passwords can also be set for further PDF security. Modification in PDF documents such as content copying, PDF printing, form field completion, degraded printing, annotation modification as well as PDF document assembly can also all be restricted by using Aspose.Pdf.Kit.”

Docs on the go
Just as fewer workers occupy corporate cubicles, today, fewer document life-cycle management solutions live exclusively on the desktop. “In the last year, it seems like everyone’s talking about mobile PDF development,” said CeTe’s Cochran.

Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS) has PDF support built-in, though the iOS PDF reader vulnerability is currently being exploited to jailbreak Apple devices, and is reported to have even wider application security implications. Kindle offers a built-in PDF reader or the option to easily convert image-heavy PDFs to Kindle format via e-mail. Android PDF support is coming soon, while the iPad competitor, the BlackBerry Playbook, will support a spectrum of Adobe technology, making it a contender for remote corporate apps and data collection. Medical devices look to be another hot mobile niche, said Cochran.

As Foxit’s assistant vice president, Alex Alexander, put it, “People want to consume a document on multiple devices. We want that experience to be the same across an e-reader, desktop or laptop.”

Foxit claims its small file size is an advantage for mobile devices compared to Adobe’s heft and separate versions for desktop and mobile platforms. Foxit is watching the hardware business close; in fact, it exited the e-book device market earlier this year to avoid competing with its customers, Xiong said.

That raises the question: Could the ePub format shove PDF aside on mobile platforms? A clean sweep seems unlikely, even though a recent O’Reilly blog noted a rapid ramping up of ePub and Kindle-compatible Mobipocket formats starting in early 2009. Kindle also offers an Android application file and the accessible DAISY format for customers purchasing its e-books. The author noted that customers often download multiple formats.

A rectangular view
E-books aside, opportunities abound for PDF evolution, including the older PDF/X subset for prepress workflows and graphic arts, the PDF/E subset for engineering and CAD files, the PDF/UA subset for universal accessibility, and even such niches as sheet music scanning and recognition applications. It seems Adobe’s 17 years of promoting an increasingly standardized use of PDF have finally paid off. While the paper metaphor may be wearing thin, there are still myriad reasons for mandating page layout, creating standard forms and legitimizing legally binding documents.

“I think most of the concerns come back to fidelity and compatibility,” said Aspose’s Lundie. In other words, developers must do their homework to avoid PDF components that break the standard. The good news is, finding high-quality options is increasingly easy.