Richard Gaskin ambassador at fourthworld.com
Mon May 14 14:50:54 EDT 2018

Mark Waddingham wrote:

 > PDF and ePub serve two entirely different purposes so I'm not sure
 > the comparison is particularly helpful apart from perhaps making
 > the point that you should choose the right tool for the job you
 > are undertaking!
 > The important thing to remember about PDF (and PostScript - from which
 > it came) is that they are for a very specific thing: they are 'page
 > description languages' - they describe how ink should be applied to a
 > page to reproduce a document....

Exactly.  And well put.

They are indeed for very different purposes, and we've been using PDF 
for so long that it's become the hammer that makes everything look like 
a nail, applied to so much while it's only truly best for a much smaller 

Here's how the limitations of PDF fell onto my radar:

In the course of my work I often go through periods of research, which 
inevitably has me reading a lot of academic research papers and 
corporate white papers.  Nearly all of them are published as PDF, many 
exclusively in that format.

The circumstances in which I'm immersed in such focus vary, and the 
devices I have with me vary as well.  With reflowing content it doesn't 
matter which device I happen to be using at the time, the work continues 

But when I encounter a PDF while using screen less than 8.5" wide, the 
need to constantly zoom in and out and scroll back and forth so slows 
progress that it kills the joy of research, bringing the work to a halt 
until I can get to a device that happens to emulate size characteristics 
of paper, even though I'll never print anything I'm reading.

Curious if I'm alone with the time I spend on smaller screens led me to 
research that as well.  And it turns out I'm far from alone; it's where 
people are spending most of their computing time these days.  And since 
this trend is driven largely by people younger than me it seems unlikely 
to slow down, at least until the next displacing form factor comes along 
(but then we'll be doing something entirely different still).

As discussed earlier, for documents where printed reproduction is a 
value-add or perhaps even a necessity, PDF is a great solution, arguably 
the best there is.

But as use cases go, aside from long-form literature that one 
decreasingly reflects much of how and what people read these days.

And so while we have other formats better suited for reading text on the 
devices we're using, we keep encountering an ever-growing pile of 
documents designed for a very specific mode of reading which is of 
course not going away but is in decline.

Different tools for different jobs indeed.  Not everything is a nail, 
but the combination of technological inertia combined with an an 
acceptance among the majority of people who are not inventors of making 
due with whatever tool is handed to them, we keep using hammers to drive 

 >... in exactly the same way as the author intended.

This is the only part of what you wrote I disagree with, if we were to 
try it on as a general rule.

Writing is the flow of ideas from one mind to another, encoded in 
streams of text.

Line breaks are often a meaningful part that communication, and on 
occasion page breaks as well.

But for most writing, aside from perhaps code and poetry, column width 
is rarely a semantic consideration at all.  Even printed books come in 
different sizes.

Conformance to fixed page size is not commonly a semantic enhancement, 
but instead an

[page break]

imposition on the flow of text by the mechanical means of reproduction, 
an afterthought not of the writer at all, but of the publisher, and not 
as a matter of enhancing the flow or meaning of the words but merely to 
accommodate publishing constraints.

And where that reproduction is not bound to physical paper, a fixed 
width does not facilitate the communication, but on an increasing number 
of reading devices impedes it.

  Richard Gaskin
  Fourth World Systems
  Software Design and Development for the Desktop, Mobile, and the Web
  Ambassador at FourthWorld.com                http://www.FourthWorld.com

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