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Putting an end to the menace of website PDFs


PDF (Adobe's portable document format) files are great. Everybody uses them for handbooks and documents because one of the virtues of the format is that you, the reader equipped with Adobe's Acrobat Reader, can't change anything. Despite this, there is a move to have PDF files banned from websites.

This doesn't mean, incidentally, that my interest has abated in sites being obliged to enable you to read text at the type size with which you feel comfortable, not the size decided by the site's graphics Nazi who can't bear the thought that his/her creation might have bits changed around by filthy users. Sorry, got carried away there. PDFs evoke the same anger among readers and colleagues.

Architect Alan Kennedy writes: 'Do you hate online PDFs as much as I do? à the browser, whether IE or Mozilla, just freezes for ages until it [Acrobat Reader] is loaded. ' He's not alone. And I have had additional complaints from colleagues, one group of which centres on the fact that even if you can read PDFs you can't highlight and copy individual sections. The second is that although websites in PDF form often offer to do online conversions to HTML (hypertext markup language, the language of your browser), the result is often garbage.

We have no less than the US Department of Justice (USDoJ) plus usability guru Jakob Neilsen on our side. Neilsen says categorically: 'Forcing users to browse PDF files makes your website's usability about 300 per cent worse relative to HTML pages' (www. useit. con/alertbox/ 20010610. html).

And in a 2000 evaluation, the USDoJ reported: 'Documents displayed by the Adobe suite of products are totally unusable by those using screen-reader technology to retrieve information from a computer display.' And of Adobe's PDF to text/HTML converter: 'This plug-inà often crashed, was difficult to install and use, and produced unreadable text except in the simplest of documents.'

sutherland. lyall@btinternet. com

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