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PDF 2.0: The Worldwide Standard for Electronic Documents Is Evolving

By Barnaby Lewis; adapted and reprinted with permission from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

The Portable Document Format (PDF) format exemplifies the value of standards. Had the specification for PDF not been published from the technology's introduction in 1993, PDF would just be one of a dozen document formats.

Adobe's PDF version 1.7 became the ISO 32000 standard in 2008. Since then, members of ISO Technical Committee (TC) 171, Document management applications, Subcommittee (SC) 2, Document file formats, EDMS systems and authenticity of information, have continued the development of the specification. Recently, an updated version, ISO 32000-2, Document management - Portable document format - Part 2: PDF 2.0, has been published.

Defined as PDF 2.0, the revised standard was developed by ISO TC 171 SC 2 Working Group (WG) 2, under U.S. leadership. As the U.S. member to ISO, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has approved the 3d PDF Consortium, an ANSI-accredited standards developer, to serve as the ISO TC 171 SC 2 Secretariat and U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) Administrator.

PDF's value proposition - the reason why PDF is today's worldwide de facto standard for electronic documents - is the fact of standardization itself. PDF files are supposed to be entirely self-contained and interoperable, working equally well with PDF software from every vendor. End-users should be able to gain equivalent results irrespective of their choice of software. This core feature - PDF files always look and work the same way - is the dominant reason for the technology's success.

In PDF 2.0, the fundamentals of PDF remain identical, but the value to users has increased. Perhaps the most important enhancement is also the most subtle. PDF 2.0 addresses ambiguities, corrects errors, modernizes many features, updates normative references and six critical clauses, totaling 14% of the 972-page specification that were entirely rewritten.

Although these changes aren't new features, they make it easier to understand and successfully implement the specification, with better interoperability. In short, PDF 2.0 will make it easier and less costly for developers to improve their support for PDF at every level.

PDF 2.0 does, however, include many entirely new features in addition to the improvements to the existing specification:

  • Unencrypted wrapper documents allow secured PDF files to be delivered inside a readable "cover letter" document.

  • There's new support for rich media annotations, geospatial features, and PRC, a 3D format.

  • Associated files, first introduced with PDF/A-3, now extend to any PDF 2.0 document the ability to include machine-readable metadata about files attached to the PDF.

  • Users gain from an enhanced ability to include source, data, and other file formats as part of their PDF document.

  • Clause 14.8 on tagged PDF has been completely overhauled with a revised tag set, support for namespaces, MathML support, and pronunciation hints. The result will be more accessible documents that are also much easier to repurpose for text extraction, conversion to HTML for small devices, and more.

  • Digital signature features have been updated to meet the latest specifications, allowing users new options for verifying digitally signed PDF documents.

  • PDF now supports 256-bit AES encryption, a current-generation standard.

ISO 32000-2 is the first PDF specification developed entirely within the ISO guidelines and process. It's clearer and cleaner, supports non-proprietary technologies, and ensures a level playing field for software vendors that create, display, edit, or otherwise process PDF electronic documents. In addition to staying true to PDF's core value, PDF 2.0 provides a solid foundation for new use-cases, capabilities and workflows.


Jana Zabinski

Senior Director, Communications & Public Relations


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Beth Goodbaum

Journalist/Communications Specialist


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