Applications Everywhere Part 1. PDF and RIA merge

Any outsider who had to work with insurance bureaucracies quickly develops very strong feelings to endless paperwork, fine prints, endless riders and questions. It compounds with the fact that most of information you need to enter is public, not readily accessible or redundant.

Adobe makes probably $1B/year on licenses of PDF technologies. People developed love/hate relationship with electronic documents. The love portion is mostly caused by the fact that you can view PDFs almost anywhere in a consistent printable format. You hate PDF while trying to use it on mobile devices, try to implement the data entry there, or find the money for the high fees Adobe charges to make your documents editable by consumers.

In this article I will talk of what seems to be inevitable transformation of PDFs within the next 2-3 years. But first, lets step back 5+ years, when Macromedia and its Flash technology didn’t belong to Adobe.

At that time, Macromedia released product called FlashPaper. It would convert any printable and/or Office documents into lightweight flash streams preserving formatting and pagination. FlashPaper had a lightweight chrome to facilitate zooming, pagination and printing – it was directly competing with most uses of the Acrobat at the time. The product was discontinued about 6 years ago, and Acrobat as de facto standard went in the opposite direction becoming heavier and replacing most of the internal UI with flex.

Fast forward to today when we have low power devices with smaller screens – the Acrobat is way too big of a product for them. Adapting to different CPU/OS /screens take tremendous amount of time, leaving developers with a wrecked product. In iOS, PDFs are processed by a rudimentary Apple Reader, which has no features Adobe worked on in the last 5 years. Even Android has significant limitations – no scripting and forms functionality.

The only viable solution is to have Acrobat PDFs served on the top of the VM (yes, you guessed it right, Flash VM). With SWFTOOLS (PDF2SWF), an open source solution PDF to SWF converter you can embed a PDF in your Flex application. It converts pages of PDF into frames of movie clip. If you need the entry fields, a bit more work is required. You need to parse the PDF for inputs (type, geometry and binding) and generate “skin” for the SWFs thus providing a data entry layer.

Of course, eventually Adobe will have a PDF reader written in Flash. Till then we would have to use the above approach to allow PDF integration on both Web and Android platforms