Adobe peps up PDF on smartphones with AI-powered Liquid reformatting
The lowly Portable Document Format is a key part of our digital lives, but it "sucks" on small screens.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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PDF technology can't match quantum computing's revolutionary potential. But a lot more of the digital world revolves around the lowly Portable Document Format than the newfangled machines, which is why you should take note that Adobe is modernizing it for the smartphone era.
Liquid mode, announced Wednesday, comes as PDFs play an essential role in our lives, with schools and workplaces moving online, businesses adopting electronic transactions, and people archiving essential documents on thumb drives and cloud storage services.
The technology meets a real need, Adobe says. PDFs are poorly adapted to phones. They don't fit the screens of the smaller devices. Users have to fiddle with the document to read it all.
"It just sucks. You have to pan and zoom," Parasnis said. "All the things that make PDFs great really make PDFs bad on a phone."
Adobe's Liquid mode liberates the file format from its legacy of a letter-sized page. It uses its knowledge of other documents to predict a layout of text, graphics and tables that'll work on a small phone screen. You'll see the regular PDF view by default when opening a new document, but tapping a button converts it to Liquid mode.
Adobe's Acrobat app gets Liquid mode on Wednesday. The company will offer the technology to other companies, too, so you could see Liquid PDF in browsers, word processors and other tools that handle PDFs.
Adobe created PDF in 1992, but it's no longer proprietary because the company standardized the format through the International Organization for Standardization. And it's big. Trillions of PDF files have been created. Last year, people used Adobe tools to open 250 billion PDFs, the company said. More than 92 million people use Adobe's Acrobat Reader mobile app each month.
One limitation of Liquid mode is that it won't work for text that's just a big graphical element. One example: When you use your phone to take a photo of a document. Adobe plans to beef up Liquid mode with its Scan app's optical character recognition (OCR) technology, which converts those graphics into text, Parasnis said.
Other Adobe ideas for the future of PDFs
Liquid mode and PDF-generation tools from Adobe that launched in July are two aspects of PDF modernization. Adobe has more in mind that will employ Sensei, the brand name it uses for artificial intelligence technology.
One coming upgrade is an ability to summarize a longer PDF by using AI processing to estimate what's most important, Parasnis said. Another is an ability to infer the subject matter of a shorter PDF, then flesh it out with background information retrieved from other sources.
"These documents in effect become interactive, intelligent containers rather than a digital form of an 8 1/2-by-11-inch page," Parasnis said.
Adobe is guarding against possible abuse, Parasnis said, by working against AI training data biases that can cause problems when the AI system is actually in use. "You have to treat bias in an AI system like security," he said.