Champions of PDF: Michael Jahn, Part 1

Champions of PDF: Michael Jahn, Part 1

Don Fluckinger


into the second decade of Acrobat, PDFzone’s Champions of PDF series yields the stage to the most influential people

in the PDF world: developers, educators, consultants and visionaries. This

series will touch not only on the history of Acrobat and how it evolved into its

present state, but also on what the future holds for this versatile publishing



This installment of the series features Michael Jahn, the

free-agent evangelist who has hit a thousand publishing trade shows touting the

use of PDF on behalf of the printing industry, Agfa, Enfocus and other companies. Many PDFzone site visitors will recognize him from

his frequent posts in our forums. His lively, sometimes-cynical humor is always refreshing,

and his depth of knowledge–and love–of all things PDF are virtually unrivalled

anywhere on the industry’s landscape. Currently, he splits his time working for

Pantone and writing for Dynamic

Graphics Magazine



PDFzone: What makes PDF so useful to so many people in so many

different  places–i.e. prepress, business, and everywhere



Michael Jahn:


favorite story is, during its beta program, I believe they called it “Carousel.”

I’m not totally sure of this, but my version of the story goes that, like

everyone could exchange slideshows and presentations with a carousel of slides,

you had this standard. It wasn’t like a bunch of people got together and called

it a standard, but the slide carousel was a standard. I’m not even sure who

invented that, but it was a standard way to do it.


That was the idea. We had digital presentations to do. We had business to

do. We had documents to exchange. Adobe tried to make PostScript

device-independent, platform-independent, but they just kept running into little

issues having to do with controlling devices. Controlling the way it was played,

or it was made–something like a return between one line of text and another was

different between Unix, Wintel PCs, a Mac–something as simple as that. We all

struggled with the way we could exchange information and have it look the same.


You couldn’t mess up with a carousel, short of having a slide upside



There were a couple other technologies around. I remember something

called Hummingbird. There were things, they weren’t even sure how to do it;

sometimes the application was embedded in the document. Everyone got the idea

that we wanted to do it, and Adobe won with their methodology and



PDFzone: So how did they make it simple enough for the average office

user yet complex enough to control a press chucking out 90,000 copies of



Jahn: I guarantee

you that in Acrobat versions 1 and 2 that was not their vision. There was no

way. Even today–I think it was [Adobe Business Development Director] Gary

Cosimini who said at a trade show that 92% of all PDFs that will be made in the

next 10 seconds, they’re all from Microsoft Word, they’re not meant to be

printed. They’re just documents we want to share with each other and we don’t

want them to reflow or get reformatted.


I don’t know that it was Adobe’s idea–I guarantee you, I will bet you

cash money–that it wasn’t their intent to make a prepress format. It just

happened that a group of the top 10 printing companies in the United States

calling itself “the PDF Group” got together with Adobe before Acrobat 3 was

announced, or even developed…


PDFzone: You were in this group.


Jahn: Yes. I like

to say “I was into PDF when it was just ‘P’.” That’s my favorite line–back when

PDF was just PostScript. Around 1995. We just begged them to deal with some of

our problems, such as “How do we get from Quark to a PDF?” and “We don’t have

overprint.” We were asking for a few little, baby tools so we could do our job

better with because PostScript was too unwieldy.


I just wanted to make a file that I can look at and say “This is what it

is.” Just look at Word. Even today you can’t do that. You can’t look at a Word

file on five different computers and have it flow the same. You can’t. If I

really want it to look a certain way, I’ve got to lock it down a bit.


That’s what Adobe did. They gave me a portable document



PDFzone: It took 10 printing companies to convince Adobe that PDF would

work on press?


Jahn: Their view

was that “It’s now a digital world. Designers have to think in RGB, in different

terms.” But it was just what we needed–a portable document format–in our



The very first time Jim King, lead scientist at Adobe, and [Adobe

co-founder] John Warnock heard me talk about using PDF in CMYK mode–it was a

real baby step–at Seybold, I recall being taken aside and yelled at, chastised,

for setting the industry back 10 years. They wanted to exchange RGB or LAB



They said “This is crazy! Why are you creating device-dependent PDF?” And

I was like, “Because I need to. I need to depend on my recipe for CMYK.” This is

the way I can control what I’m giving someone and it’s going to look exactly the

way I want it to.



Week: How Jahn first got involved with PDF, the JDF revolution, making PDFs with

the Mac OS and the future for PDF.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PDFZone.