Pretty damned foolish if you ask me

One man's stand against a world Gonne Madde

I hate PDF files.

Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s not the file format itself that I hate — who could hate a file format? I mean, really? No, it’s not PDF I hate, it’s the use of PDF that gets my goat.

I get a lot of emails a day — roughly 150 to 200 make it through the spam filter and land “plop” in my lap. Of those, roughly half are spam, leaving 75 to 100 that are actually work related. Of those, roughly half again are misguided attempts to attract my attention as a journalist. Someone in Australia or Singapore, or occasionally further afield, has decided that I really need to know about their company’s latest sale or acquisition or product launch — even if it has nothing to do with the New Zealand market, isn’t available in New Zealand, never will be coming to New Zealand or is produced by a company that’s never heard of New Zealand.

They go straight in the bin, often unopened.

Then there are the work emails aimed at me, that are actually about something going on locally that may actually have an impact on you, Computerworld’s readers, and may in fact be worth finding out a bit more about.

But I’ll never know because they’ve sent me a press release that’s marked “press release” or “for your immediate attention” or something similar and once I open the email I discover nothing more than a PDF file with the prosaic file name of “press release — FINAL” or “Product Announcement — NEW ZEALAND” which I’m sure is a great help to the press agents sending out the email but doesn’t mean diddly to me.

A colleague of mine in Australia once told me about a press release he’d received. It was a PDF file but he was working remotely on a laptop with a dial-up connection and didn’t have Adobe’s reader loaded. So he downloaded it — for several hours. Once that was up and running he opened the release. Inside was a link to a website. That’s all, just a standard URL on a large blank file.

So he fired up the browser and went off to look at the website. A dialogue box told him to install Flash to better view the contents of the file, so with gritted teeth he again slowly downloaded the player.

Finally he was able to see the results of his labour. An invitation to a press event that had been held the week before in a city a long way away.

Journalistic peccadilloes aside, what is the point of annoying your audience in such a way? Surely it’s easier just to send plain text or a simple URL if you have to have the full multi-media extravaganza?

Sadly, all this pales into insignificance next to PDF’s latest encroachment on our daily lives. I’m talking about the special votes in the election. Regardless of which party you voted for, your votes should count — but it would appear that may not be the case. As I write this, electoral officials are investigating whether or not the special votes may have been skewed by a problem with different versions of PDF readers on different users’ machines blacking out the Green party’s name, logo and tick box. They’re not saying much at the moment about what has happened — except to say they don’t think it will have a huge impact on the vote.

Excuse me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If a single solitary vote has been lost because of this, then that’s more of an impact than I am comfortable with. Voting is what gives us our power. We only get it once in a while, we don’t get to say who we want in charge, we just get to pick from a pre-approved list. But it’s as much about us standing up to be counted as it is about who finally gets into office — and if even one of us has had our vote wasted because of a PDF file, then it’s an appalling indictment on the technology as it stands today.

I say we should stand up and cast out the vileness that is our reliance on PDF files. No more will we accept them from government agencies. No more will we read boring press releases from companies we’ve never heard of (actually I already do that but I’ll stick it in my PDF manifesto just to be on the safe side). No more will we watch the Adobe Update tell us we’re to install some toolbar in IE.

Alright, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up now.

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