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A Brief History of PDF File Viewers

Few file formats are as widely recognized and used as PDF. In fact, PDFs have become so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Most users don’t even give them much thought, knowing that all they need to do is click on the file and trust that their PDF file viewer will be able to open and render it accurately. But things weren’t always quite so simple.

Origins of PDF

It’s easy to take document viewing and printing for granted today, but to understand the development of the PDF format, it’s important to look back at the document challenges facing organizations in the early 1990s. Businesses, government agencies, and universities were already using local area networks to share digital documents, but there was no guarantee that a document would display the same way on every machine. In addition to multiple competing word processor formats (such as Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect), there was no reliable way of viewing files containing images or other layout elements across different software and operating systems.

Around that time, Adobe co-founder John Warnock became focused on the idea of creating a standardized document format that would work across all operating systems and effectively function like digital paper. The primary goal was to ensure that the document contents would look the same no matter where they were viewed. That meant solving complex challenges like replacing unsupported fonts without distorting the document’s layout and distilling graphic parameters to flatten the file so it would load within seconds instead of minutes.

Adobe released the first version of the Portable Document Format (PDF) in 1993, but it would take some time for the format to catch on. “The world didn’t get it,” Warnock recalled in a 2010 interview. “They didn’t understand how important sending documents around electronically was going to be.”

The early years were rocky, largely because PDF was just slightly ahead of its time. Early PDFs had limited functionality and were slightly too large to be sent quickly over the early internet connections. That began to change in 1996, however, when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) used PDFs to provide downloadable tax return forms and instructions online. The IRS also started using PDF files to digitize their internal document processes, largely phasing out their reliance upon paper documents for auditing. This adoption convinced many hesitant organizations that if the format was good enough for the IRS, then it was good enough for them as well.

The Growth of PDF File Viewers

In the years following the introduction of PDF as an open format, a unique “freemium” model emerged that helped to promote its use across a variety of industries. While developers sold software that could be used to create, convert, edit, and secure PDFs, they also offered more streamlined PDF file viewers for free. This ensured that anyone could easily open and view PDF files no matter what kind of computer or operating system they were using. 

Although early readers were offered as separate software applications, they quickly became available as libraries that could be integrated into an existing application. By integrating a PDF file viewer directly into an application, developers could provide secure PDF support without having to rely upon any external software.

Today, there are multiple PDF file viewers available, which often makes it difficult to identify the one that provides the right combination of rendering performance and security for a particular industry’s needs.

The Rendering Challenge

Rendering a PDF file accurately is a deceptively complex task because not every file is constructed in the same way. In fact, prior to the PDF standard being taken over by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in 2007, Adobe’s documentation surrounding the format was rather infamously vague, resulting in the creation of poorly optimized PDFs that third party readers had difficulty viewing properly. Some PDF file viewers address this challenge by adding new code to accommodate known issues, but this has the unpleasant side effect of giving the reader a larger footprint and potentially impacting performance.

This challenge has become even more complex in recent years given the popularity of mobile devices. Effective PDF file viewers must be able to deliver a responsive viewing experience that can adjust their user interface (UI) to different sizes and types of screens.

The Security Challenge

Security has always been an important consideration for PDF file viewers, but it has become a much more prominent concern since the first virus capable of embedding itself in PDF files was uncovered in 2001. Unfortunately, security vulnerabilities continue to be a problem with third party PDF readers, as evidenced by the multiple vulnerabilities discovered in Adobe’s PDF products in 2020. While developers have more PDF file viewers to choose from than ever before, finding a solution that doesn’t introduce security risks has become a high priority when building a new application.

One of the best solutions for resolving security challenges is to build PDF capabilities directly into their already secure applications. Viewing or creating a PDF file in an external program, such as third party software or even within a web browser, introduces a potential functionality and control gap. It’s difficult to control what can be done with a PDF once it travels outside the confines of a secure application environment, allowing it to be downloaded, viewed, and potentially altered. With PDFs set to continue as the de facto standard for digital documents, it makes more sense than ever for developers to give their applications the ability to manage those files natively, without having to interface with external software dependencies.

Find the PDF File Viewer That’s Best for You

Developers have many choices when it comes to integrating PDF viewing capabilities, which is why Accusoft has developed a broad range of PDF integrations to address every potential use case. Our Accusoft PDF Viewer delivers a high-speed, lightweight JavaScript library that offers out-of-the-box mobile support and requires only a few lines of code to install. Available as a free-to-use integration, it’s the fastest way to add dynamic PDF viewing capabilities to your application without any configuration headaches. 

If your application needs more than just support for PDF viewing, PrizmDoc Viewer provides production-scale annotation, redaction, and conversion for multiple file types. As an HTML5 viewer, PrizmDoc Viewer easily integrates into applications to create a secure environment for documents and images. Try it today using an online demo or download a free trial to see how PrizmDoc Viewer can transform the way your application handles and views documents.