What would law practice be today without this technology? It is the standard for filing pleadings and motions in court. It is the standard for exchanging contracts and virtually all other legal documents. It is the standard for producing documents in e-discovery. It is the format around which lawyers build paperless practices. It is how we invoice clients. Many seminars have been given and books written about how lawyers use it in their practices.

The technology I’m talking about, if you haven’t already guessed, is PDF, and it first came to market 25 years ago this week, on June 15, 1993.

PDF — which stands for Portable Document Format — was developed by Adobe. Adobe’s goal was to solve a then-common problem, which was the difficulty of exchanging high-fidelity documents among different computer systems and applications.

Adobe’s co-founder, Dr. John Warnock, described the concept in a 1990 white paper called “The Camelot Project.” It was recounted recently on the Adobe blog:

What industries badly need is a universal way to communicate documents across a wide variety of machine configurations, operating systems and communication networks. These documents should be viewable on any display and should be printable on any modern printers. If this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change.

Adobe’s developers went to work and, in a New York City event broadcast live on satellite links all over the world, Adobe PDF and Adobe Acrobat formally launched on June 15, 1993. The original product was a suite that included Acrobat Exchange for creating and viewing PDF documents, Adobe Reader for viewing PDF documents, and Adobe Distiller for converting PostScript files to PDF.

An Adobe technical manual published at the time described the product this way:

The goal of these products is to enable users to easily and reliably exchange and view electronic documents independent of the environment in which they were created. PDF relies on the imaging model of the PostScript language to describe text and graphics in a device- and resolution-independent manner.

Although much hyped, this first version “didn’t rocket toward widespread adoption,” as a 2015 Adobe blog post said.  The suite was expensive and Adobe had not yet made Adobe Reader available as a free download.

A major step in PDF’s development came just a decade ago. Until then, PDF had remained a proprietary Adobe standard. But in 2007, Adobe announced that it was releasing the full specification as an open standard to be published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

“By releasing the full PDF specification for ISO standardization, we are reinforcing our commitment to openness,” Adobe’s chief software architect said at the time.

On July 1, 2008, the ISO released the standard, transferring control of PDF from Adobe to an ISO committee of industry experts. Soon after, Adobe published a public patent license to the standard, granting royalty-free rights to all patents necessary to make, use, sell, and distribute PDF-compliance documents.

Today, PDF is ubiquitous, not only in law, but throughout our lives. According to Adobe:

  • More than 110 million people use Acrobat every day.
  • Three quarters of the Fortune 500 use Acrobat every day.
  • 200 billion PDFs were opened in Adobe products in 2017.

And those numbers do not include use of PDF in non-Adobe products.

The fact is, it is impossible today to work in the legal profession without using PDF. It is nearly impossible to get through a day without using PDF. It was PDF’s launch 25 years ago that materially shaped law practice as we know it now.