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How the Low-Tech, 30-Year-Old PDF Became Dominant—And What Should We Do About It?

By Bill Bice posted 11-04-2021 14:32

Please enjoy this blog post authored by Bill Bice, CEO, nQ Zebraworks.

Now is the time to leverage the accelerated change fostered by the pandemic to push your firm forward in your digital transformation, leveraging a rage example of technology that has aged well, the PDF.

In legal, we constantly work with PDFs, but when was the last time you actually thought about the PDF itself? Why is this 30-year-old technology the dominant way that we share and store documents?  

It certainly wasn't obvious at the start that the PDF format would even survive, never mind become dominant. It all started with a rather noble goal back in the early 1990s, which was to replicate paper in digital form. It's even more shocking to think about it being developed long before any real use of the World Wide Web.  

At the time, PostScript was revolutionizing printing, creating the "desktop publishing" category. John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe, was looking for a way to visualize PostScript, because the only way you could really share a document back then was to print it and hand it to someone. With PDFs, you could do that digitally for the first time, and see it just like it looked when printed. 

Initially, the brilliance of PDFs wasn't evident. PDFs were large and cumbersome in an age of dial up modems. According to Warnock, "When Acrobat was announced, the world didn’t get it. They didn’t understand how important sending documents around electronically was going to be. We met with [someone from] the Gartner Group, who said, 'This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.' " 

The initial pricing of the software didn’t help: creating PDFs was $695 at its lowest cost for one user. They even charged $50 per user for Acrobat Reader just to see those PDFs. Not surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of takers. Adobe, however, did one thing that was extremely smart: they made the specs of the PDF format freely available so that anyone could use it and build products around it, eventually making it an open standard. This made PDFs a platform. 

PDF wasn’t the only game in town, we just don’t remember any of the competitors. WordPerfect’s Envoy, for example, came built-in with WordPerfect Office in the mid-1990s, exactly when WordPerfect was completely dominant in legal. I was developing ProLaw Software in the 90s, spending most of my time in law firms, and don’t recall a firm ever using Envoy. WordPerfect decided to hold the specifications to Envoy close to the vest, wanting to own the digital files. As much as law firms loved WordPerfect, letting them have the keys to their documents wasn’t appealing. 

Adobe’s openness with PDFs turned into its killer feature, overcoming big missteps and an initially small market. Over time, the beauty of PDFs became apparent. PDFs transcend platforms, showing the same document to users no matter what device they’re using. And although the files were large in the age of modems, the computational base of PDFs is actually very efficient. Network speed and bandwidth quickly grew to make PDFs an effective way of sharing and storing documents. 

In 2008, the International Organization for Standards took over the PDF specification, and now Adobe has just one board seat on the relevant committee, with no more power than any other board member. The real power for them has instead been in revenue, where their Document Cloud, driven by PDFs, produced $1.5B in 2020. PDF, even as an open standard, has an association with Adobe, so what’s good for PDFs tends to be good for Adobe.

What’s Next 

PDFs do a wonderful thing that we wish all technology would: it just works. This is the rare case of a 30-year-old technology where the issue isn’t improving it, but simply using it. The pandemic has only increased the importance and dominance of the PDF, where digitizing your documents is now more important than ever. You can’t #WorkFromAnywhere with paper that only exists in one place.  

The silver lining of the pandemic in legal is the acceleration of firms’ digital transformation, and it all comes from leveraging the lowly PDF. 

Digital Mailroom 

For example, a digital mailroom has always been a better solution than pushing a cart down the office hallway. It doesn’t matter where a particular attorney is on a given day, they always get their mail. 

  • A digital mailroom is the perfect way to accelerate your digital transformation by starting off in the right place with all incoming mail being digitalized to PDF.
  • Many firms used tools already at their disposal, scanning to email. A digital mailroom unclogs your email system while providing accountability and security.
  • Digitalizing enables whole new ways of working, for example, shared queues for docketing, A/P, A/R and large cases.

Capturing From Devices From Anywhere 

When you’re working from anywhere, you use the tools that are available to you. The challenge with all this work happening outside the firm’s office space is how do you get the benefit of integrations, automated workflows and security protocols?  

The solution is to extend the firm’s infrastructure to support home scanners, desktop printers and mobile devices. For example, turn that iPhone into a portable scanner and use it to create sharable PDFs. Instead of using random scanning apps that leave sensitive documents laying around and clog up email as the easiest transport mechanism, tie it into the firm. It may not be as fast as a multi-function device (MFD), but your smartphone is right there in your pocket, always available. For quickly scanning a document while in a client’s office, it can’t be beat. Having it flow right into the firm’s document workflow, getting OCR’d and leveraging integrations with your core systems, makes it like having an MFD in your pocket.

The scanner sitting on an attorney’s desktop at home is no different: it’s the rare attorney that is going to remember to go clean up the documents left behind on their local hard drive. Instead, tie that desktop scanners into the firm’s infrastructure, just like you can now do with your smartphone. It’s amazing when your little $100 desktop scanner suddenly starts giving you the same end-result as your huge MFD. 

The advantages of this approach: 

  • Enables attorneys and staff to be more productive when not in the office
  • Leverages the firm’s existing workflows and integrations
  • Keeps documents within the firm repository and security protocols

While the PDF may have started inauspiciously, it is now pervasive and critical for leveraging the accelerated change fostered by the pandemic. As Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”



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