Champions of PDF: Michael Jahn, Part 1
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
PDFzone: What makes PDF so useful to so many people in so many
different places–i.e. prepress, business, and everywhere
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.