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As I am the facilitator for my company’s local user group I get a chance to sit in on some fairly interesting discussions with the ECM user community. In fact, at one of these recent meetings just before the Christmas break we had an interesting topic: PDF/A. For the uninitiated PDF/A is a standardized file format intended for long-term content archiving. The idea is that if today I save a document in PDF/A that in thirty years I will still be able to retrieve and view this document without worry that there will be viewer applications available and that the content of the file will be presented in the same way without loss of quality or information. This also provides a stronger basis for the legal admissability of electronic document. So many companies want to throw away the paper but are scared stiff of doing so. Organizations that would benefit the most from PDF/A are those which are responsible for retaining documents over a long time period such as banks, insurance companies and government agencies. Today most organizations use TIF as their long-term storage format.

PDF/A brings some great things to the table. First off, it is based off of the widely used PDF format. This is a good thing. Almost every desktop and laptop in the world has a PDF viewer available. Adobe Acrobat being the most popular. Most people with a heartbeat are quite familiar with the Adobe viewer and so this format has an exceptional advantage in that it is already well entrenched. Another advantage is that with PDF/A being an open standard and no longer a proprietary format it is not subject to the whims and folly of a particular software vendor. The PDF/A standard will live on and continue to evolve according to the needs of the community. A particular drawback is that the standards committee might not respond as quickly to the community as a vendor would its customers.

Certainly it should also be noted that PDF/A also brings improved fidelity to the game. In most cases the size of a PDF/A scanned as a colour image is the same as a TIF image of the same DPI. In B&W a PDF/A image would be smaller then its TIF counterpart at a similar DPI level. In either case it represents a net benefit. While this isn’t such a big deal for a small group storing a few thousand images it is a VERY big deal for a bank that might have hundreds of millions of images and is looking to control storage costs without losing image quality.

Today TIF is certainly THE standard for long-term image storage and it isn’t going away anytime soon. However, let us remember a few things about TIF. First, it is still a proprietary format and is owned by (drum roll here) Adobe. Not that Adobe has any sinister plans for TIF (that we know of..heh heh) but the weakness for TIF is what I stated above…it isn’t going anywhere. As a larger percentage of the day-to-day and year-to-year content moves into electronic format the relevance of TIF will dwindle over time. Twenty years ago we all used WordPerfect and now we don’t. What happened in between was that WP simply became irrelevant and we stopped using it. (unless you are my father, whoops)

While ECM is a very complex and magical world and every ECM specialist would love it if everyone everywhere would embrace and implement the entire ECM-magnetic spectrum (from BPM to Content Collection) in a fortnight the hard realty is that most organizations are just now grappling with the basics–getting their electronic content under control (from email to Sharepoint to scanned images to…). Not that these basics are particularly easy, mind you. In fact they are downright scary and expensive for many. After decades of ignoring the steady increase of electronic content volume there is a massive amount of catch-up to do. I doubt that most of my customers have the cultural will to take this on even if money were no object (but that’s another blog for another day).

With that said PDF/A is a great next step for any organization to take. However, it is only that..a next step. Before the plunge is taken there are a few things to keep in mind. First, PDF/A is a specification and not an application. This means that it is open to a certain level of interpretation by anyone who tries to write a viewer. Today this is not much of a consideration. We have Adobe Acrobat. In thirty years who knows what PDF/A viewers will exist if any. Any content strategy must include considerations for viewing this content at a point in the future.

Let’s also not forget that a document stored in PDF/A is still subject to being modified/tampered with. At a minimum vital content must not only be secured but must be viewable to only the right people. Furthernore an audit trail must be able to show who has had access. In other words, PDF/A is only a small part of a larger Content and Records Management program.

Finally it should be noted that not all PDF/A formats are created equal. For example. PDF/A – 1a is the “kitchen sink” of the standard and includes elements such as tagging whereas PDF/A – 1b is a subset of this. To determine what is the appropriate format a use case analysis must be undertaken. In a lot of cases PDF/A – 1a is overkill and will end up generating larger capture/conversion and storage costs. I can’t stress enough here that you must know what is the intent of the content before you make a decision. Companies such as LuraTech and AdLib have sprung up as experts in this field and can provide more insights.

So there it is. There is no space-aged breakthrough with PDF/A, most of us are using this technology right now. The remarkable thing here is that PDF/A is simply a common-sense approach that uses existing technology to solve a business problem. (as opposed to some gold-plated Apollo program built by developers for bragging rights) How about them apples! With that we still need to make sure that we have our eyes wide open.

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