The future of electronic documents: Gilbane’s view from 1993

Screen shot of the Gilbane Report. Legendary content management guru Frank Gilbane wrote an article in 1993 discussing the fact that all significant content was (then) distributed on paper. He wondered: what would come next?

First: why was paper distribution critical to business information in 1993? Frank said:

“Paper was not only the lowest common denominator, it was the only common denominator. Paper ‘guaranteed interchange’ while it also guaranteed ‘fidelity of content and appearance’.”

The article was published just three months after Adobe Systems released PDF 1.0. Neither Frank nor Adobe knew that PDF would grow over the next 21 years to define the fixed-form electronic document.

But Frank was thinking well beyond a digital replacement for paper. What’s needed, he said, is:

“…nothing short of a multimedia lingua franca that “raises the bar” in the way computers share information and present it to humans.”

The article next tackles the problem of differing viewing devices. In 1993 small screens were defined by early-generation “PDA” devices rather than today’s phones and tablets. Frank theorized that optimizing content delivery to various devices was “the easy part”. I’d agree with that (certainly, compared to some of the other challenges), but today, I’d say we’re still a way from solving it, easy or otherwise.

The problem isn’t so much unavailable technology as lack of standardization in how it’s applied. HTML5 is wonderful, but (a) it’s not really here yet and (b) implementations continue to fragment. The day when websites perform identically on different browsers and mobile devices as well as seamlessly delivering content to apps is still some way in the future.

Frank correctly identified application independence and solving the font rendering problem as critical issues – ones that PDF solves, even if it’s well short of a “multimedia lingua franca”. PDF amounts, as Frank puts it, to a “simple page turner”. This remains generally true in 2014, but “simple” pages have not lost their appeal, as usage and search data makes clear.

What does he get wrong? Not much. Back in 1993 Frank said that “feature sets” in viewers would define how publishers would compete with each other. As it’s turned out (so far) the features are in the format (mainly HTML or PDF) while the viewing software is (in principle) as generic as possible (browsers or PDF viewers). Content that’s specific to a given implementation – such as apps for mobile devices – is usually an echo of content available elsewhere via a browser.

In defiance of expectations, the “simple page turner” (PDF) continues to grow in adoption and use, even in the technical and engineering fields where dynamic content implementations would be expected to thrive. Several factors underlie the continued popularity of page-based content:

  • Content in PDF is totally reliable in terms of how it appears, no matter how its displayed. A user may be forced to pan around a page when they zoom in, but unlike so many websites the relationship between words, tables, images and so on remain true to the author’s intent.
  • While the small screens that benefit from reflowed content are increasingly popular, large screens are also far more common than in 1993. Back then most users lived with 15 or 17 inch color CRTs. Today’s desktop displays are commonly 20 inches or larger and will get larger and cheaper still. The barriers to displaying full-size fixed-format documents on a desktop alongside other applications just aren’t what they used to be.
  • As self-contained files, PDF documents may be abstracted from the delivery system or website on which they are hosted. As such they provide a independent record of available information at a given moment in time. This suits applications in which accountability is important. As it happens, accountability still matters.
  • Self-contained content also operates when the viewing device is offline. While connection to a network is nearly constant in many workplaces it’s not universal.

Frank’s 1993 piece offers a fascinating perspective from the dawn of the Internet. Published at the beginning of the evolution from paper to PDF, it now represents, among other things, a cautionary note on what happens when great ideas meet the messy reality of real-world use-cases.

Read Frank Gilbane’s article in the Gilbane Report Vol 1, Num4 – Sept 1993 (pdf) for yourself.



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