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What Is A PDF?

If you've ever wondered what a PDF is, how this format came to be, and what it actually means, then you've come to the article you were looking for. The PDF (Portable Document Format) format has been with us for nearly 30 years, and although it will surely surprise more than one person, it turns out that its origins date back to the nineties.


PDF emerged in June 1993, when its first version was shown at a technology fair, at an event in which the specialized press was dazzled by the format, known at the time simply as Acrobat 1.0. This new extension allowed you to work on a document, knowing that it would look exactly the same on any computer in the world.

That program, which responded to the name of Acrobat Reader 1.0, required a paid license to work. Of course, as its name suggests, it was only used to read PDFs on the computer. Back then, no one had heard of the option to edit a PDF: as it was created, that's how it stayed once sent.

With Acrobat 1.0, Adobe managed to solve one of the biggest headaches of the time: its format solved the compatibility problems that existed between computers when working with text documents. Ths is because it guaranteed that anyone else could see the file exactly as it was conceived by its author.

The Origin Of The PDF Format, What It Is, And Its History

The PDF came at a time when office paper was consumed in the United States at a rate of more than two tons per second, a time when, moreover, every day, 200 million sheets of paper ended up in drawers in offices throughout America. This is a situation that, fortunately, today has been reduced thanks to digitization.

In the 1990s, sending a document from one part of the country to another was a technical challenge: the fax machine was incapable of processing elaborate texts that included any images, while postage was expensive, slow, and delivery was not always guaranteed on time. In fact, it was customary to use two simultaneous courier services, with two copies of the document to be sent, in case one of the two did not arrive on time.

Adobe (formerly Adobe Systems Incorporated), a company founded in 1982 in San José (California), managed to find the solution with the advent of the PDF file. It was one of the great milestones that gave rise to the commercial success of a company that, today, employs more than 22,000 people around the world.

Camelot, The Adobe Team That Brought PDF To Life

To learn the origins of the PDF format, we must go back to the year 1990, when John Warnock, one of the founders of Adobe —together with the recently deceased Charles Geschke—, wrote a six-page white paper. In this, he highlighted the problem at the time of sharing text documents between different computers, and therefore, different operating systems and/or programs.

That white paper, published under the name "The Camelot Project", gave life to the project of the same name, which just a few years later would give life to the PDF format. Thanks to the brilliant team that was responsible for its creation, the official launch took place on June 15, 1993.

The PDF Managed To Unify What No One Had Been Able To Do On Mac, Windows, UNIX And MS DOS

The great milestone of the .pdf format was to create a digital solution, as universal as a sheet of paper was at that time. Just like printing a paper document and sending it by post, you knew that the file would arrive in the exact format that you had sent, without the letters moving from their place or the images appearing with low quality. The PDF managed to replicate the uniformity of paper in the digital format.

At a time when different operating systems (Mac, Windows, UNIX and MS DOS) lived on totally different computers from each other, sending a document from one computer to another usually meant that the person receiving it would find a completely changed file. Often, this would affect the format of the text and make it totally unreadable.

The PDF, which stands for Portable Document Format, managed to provide a solution to the growing demand for a standardized format for digital documents. This was at a time when more and more procedures began to be carried out digitally.

The PDF Format Was About To Be Called Carousel

John Warnock's team considered different names before settling on Acrobat (and later PDF). Had it not been for the fact that Kodak had already patented and registered the name "Carousel", this would probably have been the name that Adobe would have used for the commercial name of the project.

Finally, the project was released under the name of Acrobat, due to the fact that its name evoked qualities such as strength or good performance, terms that Adobe considered more than adequate for the definition of their new tool.

What Is PDF: 5 Keys To Understand It

These are the keys that explain what the PDF is, what it means, and what it’s for:

  • What does PDF mean? This is the acronym for Portable Document Format.
  • What is the PDF for? It’s mainly used to present documents and text files in a universal, standardized format that is compatible with the vast majority of electronic devices on the planet.
  • When was the PDF released? It came into being on June 15, 1993, the date Adobe released the first version of Acrobat software. This served to bring this universal, standardized, and unified digital document format to life.
  • What types of PDF are there? There are four broad types of PDF documents:
    • Image-only files.
    • Untagged documents.
    • Tagged documents.
    • Electronic forms.
  • Today, the PDF format has multiple applications in the day-to-day life of any person. Despite the fact that it’s a format not intended to be edited, there are tools that make it easier to carry out actions such as dividing a PDF, compressing it so that it weighs less, or signing it.
Peter is a tech-head with a keen interest in all things related to (of course) PDFs, web design, digital marketing, artifical intelligence, Google, Microsoft, Tesla and more. When he's not reading up on the latest tech news or trying new apps, he's drinking too much coffee or exploring Madrid where he's based!
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