Will PDF files become obsolete in 5–10 years?

A recent question on Quora caught my attention:

Will PDF files become obsolete in 5–10 years?

Note: you may need to have a Quora account before you can see the full comment thread.

Up until PDF became an official ISO standard in 2008 there was frequent talk of a potential “PDF Killer” coming along and cutting Adobe’s lunch.

Macromedia’s Flash paper was often touted as such, but Adobe took care of that by acquiring Macromedia (although the acquisition wasn’t for the purpose of neutering the Flash paper threat — it was just collateral damage).

After that came a few offerings from Microsoft. Metro, InfoPath, XPS and so on. Never heard of them? Yeah, they never really took off — mainly due to the commanding lead that PDF already had and because Microsoft was seemingly never serious about making them successful. But that doesn’t stop them, they’re now pushing OpenXPS for Windows 8. Don’t bet the farm on that.

Former Planet PDF Managing Editor, Dan Shea, wrote an article last year about PDF killers and how PDFs biggest threat is from within, due to the proliferation of subsets of the PDF specification.

That still seems about right, but only as a possible threat, not a certain threat.

PDF isn’t going to be replaced by anything because it’s a file format that covers a wide range of uses. Printing (Hi PDF/X), document archiving (G’day PDF/A), electronic forms, engineering drawings (Hello PDF/E) and much more. For a competing format to come and replace PDF in all of those areas… well, it’s just too big a task (PDF has a 20 year head start).

What’s more likely is that PDF will slowly be phased out for certain uses as more optimal technologies or methods become available.

For example, it’s common to use PDF for electronic forms, but it’s possible that these PDF forms will be replaced with HTML web forms in the next few years as more and more companies go HTML5 crazy. Of course, even this won’t replace PDF forms entirely, it’ll just mean a reduced reliance on PDF for this particular use case.

Another example are e-books. PDF is a popular format for e-books but it’s not necessarily an optimal format for e-books. EPUB or another file format designed specifically for e-books might replace PDF as the format of choice in the future.

But for printing, document archiving and document exchange (where fidelity is important) PDF doesn’t look like it has any challengers on the horizon.

In short, PDF won’t be obsolete in 5-10 years — far from it — it’s going to be around for a long time to come.

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