What is a PDF file? Why do we use it?

PDF (Portable Document Format) is a file format that has captured all the elements of a printed document as an electronic image that you can view, navigate, print, or forward to someone else. It is a typical document file format that you may open regularly in office or that one you will find abundantly in the internet.

The History of PDF

PDF stands for Portable Document Format. Created by Adobe, it first launched in the early 1990s as a way to completely store a document in one file. Because the web was young when PDF was growing, they were mainly used for desktop publishing of documents to print. Companies used PDFs to save posters, flyers, and other similar types of files for physical printing. After a few years, Adobe released Adobe Reader free for all, and the PDF eventually beat out several competitors to become the file standard for fixed documents.

Why They’re Important

The portable in PDF is significant: PDFs look the same no matter what device they’re viewed on. Whether you’re using Windows 10, a Mac, Chrome OS, Android, Windows Phone, an iPad, or Windows XP — on any software and hardware, PDFs stay consistent. The information contained in a PDF is not dependent on the creator’s or the viewer’s device. Including fonts, pictures, charts, and the like is no struggle for a PDF.

Compare this to sending a Microsoft Word document to someone. What happens if your recipient doesn’t have Microsoft Word on their computer? Sure, they could open it in Google Docs, but it might look a lot different since Docs renders files differently. If you spent a lot of time getting tables, images, and other elements just right, it might all go out the window. And what if they try to open the Word document on their phone?

As a general rule, PDFs are meant for viewing. What you see when you press Save is what anyone else that views the document will get. And you don’t even have to have a reader installed — most modern browsers open PDFs with no problem. While you can edit PDFs, you’re limited to few options for free unless you pay up for premium software like Adobe Acrobat, Foxit PhantomPDF, or Nitro.

Why They’re Still Popular

In addition to the portability described above, PDFs carry several features that have contributed to their continued popularity.

For one, PDFs allow for fine-tuned security settings. When you create a PDF, you can disable viewers’ ability to print the document, leave comments on it, or copy its text. Thus, when governments and businesses put forms online, they can heavily restrict them to prevent abuse. For more security, you can also password-protect a PDF.


You’ve likely noticed that PDFs also work with fillable fields. A PDF creator can place highlighted blocks anywhere in a document to show where they’d like a signer to add information. Even if they’ve restricted editing, a viewer can still type their name, address, and other pertinent info into these fields. PDFs support electronic signing, so you can add your consent to a document without having to print it out.


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