PDFs suck but printing from browsers worse — developer

Inventor of the WikiPublisher concept supports continued print relevance of the PDF

The PDF format is inconvenient for online purposes but excellent for print, says WikiPublisher developer John Rankin, responding to the story “PDF ‘creature’ still haunts government sites” (Computerworld, February 13). Printing from web browsers, by contrast “still sucks”, he says.

As with many contentious information processing questions, a technical focus on formats obscures the real question, Rankin says. “This is not a technology issue; we need to rethink how we create, distribute and display information for web audiences.”

Creation and storage of PDF documents are not website functions, Rankin says. “A better approach is to run a ‘typesetting service’, that takes content from a site and composes it into print form, returning a PDF file to the requestor. This gives you true print-on-demand.”

WikiPublisher, developed by Rankin with the aid of a grant from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, is just such a typesetting service.

“It also enables content mashups — combining selected content from several websites into a single print document.”

Sites with large collections of PDF documents need an interim solution, he says.

“Providing an HTML paragraph describing the document’s key messages [as recommended in government web accessibility guidelines] is an inadequate response. A better option is to hold all the PDF documents in a suitable web repository.

“Each document has a full metadata record, not just a textual description.”

Maintenance of such a repository in parallel with a WikiPublisher-like PDF generator is an appropriate approach to the problem of printing, he says.

However disability specialists say neither the government or Rankin’s approach fully tackles the problem that PDFs are not readable by many “assistive technology” devices used by disabled people to read websites.

While sticking to his guns, Walsh acknowledges that cascading style sheets (CSS) have improved the look of print from web pages.

As proof of his own concepts, Rankin has placed his argument on a web-page, and appended an icon to generate the same information in an on-the-fly PDF document.

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