With the April 15 tax deadline approaching, millions of Americans will pay at least one visit to the IRS Web site to download a missing form in a ubiquitous file format that has quietly revolutionized the way we share electronic documents.
The PDF, which stands for Portable Document Format, was created to help publishers and graphic artists create documents that can be transmitted and read or printed - in their original form - by almost anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.
Without fanfare, the PDF has become a near-universal medium that bridges the paper and paperless worlds for industry, government and educational institutions.
Since the IRS adopted the PDF format for its online library six years ago, taxpayers alone have downloaded some 600 million forms and other documents - saving untold millions in postage, handling costs and trips to post offices or IRS service centers.
"It's been doubling for years, even though it probably won't double this year," said Paul Showalter, a senior IRS publishing analyst.
Adobe Systems, the San Jose, Calif., company that pioneered desktop publishing and graphic arts in the 1980s, developed the PDF as an offshoot of its PostScript display language. It offers free PDF readers for virtually all popular computers under the theory that if enough ordinary people can read the format, the people who publish documents will line up to buy the $250 Adobe Acrobat program that creates PDFs.
So far, the tactic has worked. The company says Acrobat Reader has been installed on more than 375 million computers worldwide, including copies downloaded from the Internet or bundled with new PCs. The full Acrobat creation program has become the standard for publishers who want to distribute high-quality documents electronically - within their companies or on the Web.
Adobe says its ePaper business unit, which essentially is the Acrobat product line, had $292 million in revenue last year, a 41 percent increase over the previous year.
The secret to its success is simple: If you have the free Acrobat Reader program, you can see and read any PDF document as the author originally intended it to display, with photographs, color graphics, text in the right typefaces, and, for multimedia presentations, sound and animation.
Creating an electronic document is almost as easy. Once a user has installed Acrobat software, all he has to do is "print" the document. Instead of winding up on paper, it lands on his hard drive as a PDF file.
Say you've created a brochure on a Macintosh using InDesign, a page-layout program from Adobe. If you turn it into a PDF with Acrobat 2.0, a mid-1990s version of the PDF program, someone using Windows XP can use Acrobat Reader 5.0 to view or print a duplicate of the original - even though the user doesn't have a Mac or InDesign software.
This transparency is virtually unnoticed by the millions who view and print PDFs every day. "The PDF ... isn't really sexy because it's a file format," said Don Fluckinger, an editor of PDFzone.com, a Web site dedicated to PDF technology. "Blank canvas actually is a pretty cool invention, but it takes a Renoir to turn it into art."
The IRS is the world's leader in using the technology to distribute documents. It has 130,000 Acrobat licenses - one for every laptop and desktop in the agency, Showalter said.
And while the PDFs that taxpayers download from the Web still need to be filled out by hand and mailed in, the agency is trying to determine now how it will allow people to electronically file.
More than 300 other government agencies around the world have adopted the PDF as their standard and every state has tax forms available in PDF, Fluckinger said.
Adobe released the latest version of its PDF creator last year. Loaded with new tricks, Acrobat 5.0 can create PDFs that are accessible to the blind through add-on software that reads on-screen information in a synthesized voice. Federal agencies have been required by law to have Web sites and documents that offer such accessibility since last year.
Acrobat 5.0 also creates forms that can be filled out, then printed or transmitted across the Internet as well. Once the information is filled into the PDF form, it can be extracted and moved to a database.
Recipients can mark up a PDF with their own notes, circle parts of a document or sign their name to documents - all without changing the original.
Adobe originally sold the reader for $50 when it was introduced in 1993. "By the time Acrobat 2 rolled around [the following year], the Web was becoming a phenomenon," said Harry Vitelli, senior director for Acrobat Product Management. "We decided at that time that we wanted it to be a free download."
Graphic artists caught on first, then businesses slowly began to realize that PDFs made for faster communication, Vitelli said.