What Is a PDF?

The Portable Document Format Makes File Sharing Easy

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PDF is an acronym for Portable Document Format, a file format introduced by Adobe in 1991. Files saved as PDFs are highly portable across different computer platforms. PDF documents have a .pdf file extension.

Before the introduction of the PDF format, sharing files with others was much more complicated. Both computers needed the same software program, fonts and images to display the documents as intended.

After the introduction of the PDF format, anyone can open, view and print a PDF without needing the original software, fonts or graphics. Everything needed to view the document is contained in the file. The format is widely used and trusted.

How to Make a PDF

For years, the only way to make a PDF was by using Adobe Distiller software. Eventually, Adobe included Distiller in a printer driver so that "Print to PDF" was a print option from many software programs. It became as easy to make a PDF as to print a file.

Third-party app designers introduced apps for making PDFs on mobile platforms. Among the many app choices for this purpose are:

  • PDF Creator
  • pdfFactory Pro
  • PrimoPDF
  • PDFelement
  • PDF Suite
  • Genius Scan

How to Open a PDF

There's a good chance that if you double-click a PDF on your computer or tap it on a mobile device, it will open. Most desktop and mobile browsers, as well as many software programs, are able to display PDFs without any additional software.

If a PDF doesn't open, use Adobe's free Acrobat Reader to open it. 

Uses for PDFs

Many designers generate PDF documents from their page layout applications and send the PDF documents to customers so that they can view and proof the design without having the same software and fonts installed. Increasingly, PDF documents are used in place of PostScript or native file formats for having material commercially printed.

You can use PDFs to:

  • Share files with others who don't have the same software as you have
  • Share files with others who use a different platform—Mac, Windows or Linux
  • Share files that look the same on any computer that displays them
  • Share files that can be password protected to prevent unauthorized viewing, printing, copying or editing  
  • Publish electronic documents and e-books
  • Print files to different types of printers and all prints look the same
  • Create files with annotations, hyperlinks and bookmarks that can be shared via email and on the web
  • Create interactive forms that can be shared via email and the web

Advantages of Working With PDFs

You can electronically sign a PDF for communications online. If your signature is not for a legally binding document, you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader DC, the Acrobat Reader mobile app or the Adobe Sign mobile app. For legally binding digital signatures, use Adobe Acrobat DC or Adobe Sign.

When you scan paper documents and save them as Adobe PDFs, the files are searchable. Adobe PDFs use OCR—optical character recognition, so you can comment and edit scanned PDFs.

The ability to password protect Adobe PDFs increases the security of your electronic transactions.

You don't have to worry whether the recipient of your electronic file will be able to open it.