In 1991, Adobe’s John Warnock wrote “The Camelot Paper” in which he explained this specific problem:
Most programs print to a wide range of printers, but there is no universal way to communicate and view this printed information electronically ... What industries badly need is a universal way to communicate documents across a wide variety of machine configurations, operating systems, and communication networks.
I have personal experience with this problem long after this paper was written. When I started working at Ghent University in 1998, I was confronted with software that only worked on DOS and that could only print to an HP printer that couldn’t even be a network printer: it had to be attached to the local computer. I solved this problem by introducing PDF: PDF had the advantage that it can be viewed on every platform and that it can be printed in a reliable way, which were the requirements of my University project.
The 1991 Camelot paper led to the Carousel Product Specification, which in turn resulted in the first PDF specification and software in 1993: Acrobat Distiller and Acrobat Reader. Although PDF had what it took to make the paperless world happen, it turned out that many people considered PDF as “a format for printing documents.” I also noticed this in my university project: people didn’t use the digital documents digitally, the first years the project was in production, the users of my application printed every PDF I produced. I wanted to solve this paradox and I succeeded: over the years people stopped printing PDFs and started to consume them digitally. How did I achieve this change of hearts with respect to paper?
In the first decade of its existence, PDF was something that lived on the desktop. A PDF document was created manually by a human being, using a Word processor or desktop publishing software. The final purpose of many of those document was to be printed. People still loved paper more that digital. In 1998, I was one of the first people who created an open source library that allowed developers to create PDFs on the server automatically, without any human intervention. The major flaw of this first library was the fact that a developer needed to read and understand the PDF specification in order to use it. I soon discovered that I had to make it easier for developers to create documents if I wanted to make PDF a success. That’s why I created iText: a library that allows developers to create PDF documents programmatically without having to be a PDF specialist. The library was an instant hit: everyone in need of PDF functionality started to use iText. And here’s the second paradox: I created a library that multiplied the world-wide amount of PDF documents dramatically, hoping that this would make the dream of the paperless world happen. The secret to achieve this dream is “added value”: People will prefer digital over paper, once the digital document has added value when compared to the paper document. So I began focusing on the added value that PDF technology made available and I thought of ways to make PDF even more popular. iText made it possible to publish data from a database extremely fast, resulting in documents of hundred thousands of pages. Printing such a document would be madness, but the PDF format was a great way to archive a snapshot of a specific moment in time. Among the first iText users, there were a lot of banks who used iText to create PDFs for that specific purpose. But there’s more.