PDFs are great. They make digital life easier

Adobe logoWhat are PDFs? PDF stands for “Portable Document Format”. PDFs are files that anyone can open – in any operating system and on any device. Hence the name. The format was created by Adobe and they marketed it in a clever way. They made it possible for anyone at all to be able to view PDF files using their free software – Adobe Reader. The way that Adobe made their money was by charging (quite a lot, actually) for the software that created the files that were then free to view. This software was called Adobe Acrobat.

When is a PDF useful? Here’s an example. I wrote my client database using Microsoft’s Access software. One of my database’s functions is to produce client invoices. If I created an invoice in the native Access format then almost no-one would be able to open it and I would have starved by now. So, for many years I have been using Adobe Acrobat to create my invoices in PDF format that I can easily email to my clients. It seems to work: I haven’t starved yet.

Adobe Acrobat IconThings have moved on since it was necessary to have Adobe Acrobat to create PDF files. For a long time, for instance, it has been possible to create PDF files from within Microsoft Office modules – from within Word and Excel, for instance. With the introduction of Windows 10, the ability to create PDFs of more-or-less any printable file has been built right into the operating system. You can use it from within applications (such as your browser) or you can use it from File Explorer.

Let’s just clear up a possible confusion.
If you wish to create a PDF from within an application, then you might (quite reasonably) assume that you will need to “save” the file as a PDF file. This is not how it works. Instead, you have to think in terms of “printing” the file. Let us suppose you already have a printer called “HP” and another printer called “Canon”. You would select which printer you wanted to use at the time of printing the file. Creating a PDF file is just an extension of that. If you start to choose your printer, you will now see that you not only have “Canon” and “HP” to choose from, but that you will also have the option of “Microsoft Print to PDF”. Select this “printer” and you will then have the opportunity to name your PDF file and decide where to save it.

The other way of creating PDF files is from File Explorer. Simply right-click on the file, and then choose the option to “Print”. A dialog box will come up inviting you to change the name and location of the saved file. Alternatively, you can accept the defaults. A PDF version of the file will then be saved, leaving the original file intact.

Adobe-Windows10You can use the ability to “print to a pdf file” to save web pages. This can be very handy as web pages do, of course, change and even disappear over time. Saving a web page as a PDF file means that you have a permanent copy of it and you don’t need an internet connection to retrieve it. It is a fact, though, that a lot of web pages won’t be completely, accurately, rendered to a PDF file. This is nothing new. It has always been the case that printing web pages to a real printer involves bits missing, blank sections, and so on. Printing a web page to a PDF file doesn’t seem to be any less successful than printing a web page to a real printer.

It’s nice to say something positive about Windows 10 for a change, after all the negativity brought about by Microsoft’s heavy-handed tactics in getting us to upgrade. For what it’s worth, my own experience of Windows 10 (on three of my machines) has been pretty positive and printing to a PDF file is a welcome enhancement.

Having a paperless office is now more a question of trusting the technology and changing one’s habits than a question of technical possibility

Panasonic KXP1081 DM Printer

I think this was the first printer I owned – a Panasonic dot matrix – back in about 1984

Way back in the mists of time (aka the 1980s), the “Paperless Office” was some kind of technological Holy Grail. Ironic, methinks, that this was also the time when computer programs used to spew out reams and reams of green and white continuous paper as it thundered through chattering dot matrix printers. There even used to be a car bumper sticker that read “Save trees – murder a programmer”. The IT industry undoubtedly created more paper than it saved.

Things are very different now, and I can think of several good reasons why:

  • With the advent of personal computing (ie the “one on every desk” that IBM used to dream about), the user of the data is much more likely nowadays to be the person who produced it, and that person can see his output onscreen rather than waiting for the office boy to deliver a 10kg printout from the computer room.
  • Word processing and the internet – especially email – have, between them, almost annihilated the printed letter (that was often printed in three copies if produced in an office).
  • Adobe Acrobat Icon

    You may need to buy Adobe Acrobat to create pdf files…..

    The pdf (portable document format) file means that the output of one program can easily be read by anyone having the free software (Adobe Reader) to open it. We don’t need to print something on paper in order for someone else to read it. My own client records system was written (by me) using Microsoft Access. There wouldn’t be any point in my sending an invoice with an email if it were in the Access format as it would be unlikely that the client could open it. By “printing” the invoice as a pdf file, the entire process is completed without paper (at my end, at least – I have no control over the client printing it out and filing it).
  • Following on from the point above, most invoices and other paperwork that we deal with on a regular basis are now routinely sent out by, for instances, the utilities companies, as pdf files attached to emails. We don’t even need to keep most of these invoices as we become accustomed to the fact that our financial history with companies such as the utilities is always available online. I am aware that a lot of people do still routinely print out such invoices and file them away in lever arch files, but that (I submit) is only a matter of habit. If we were confident of our computer backups and confident that the information would always be available online, then we wouldn’t bother with the paper. This confidence will almost certainly increase over time.
  • Programs such as Evernote and Dropbox allow us to synchronise our data across computers and mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) without manual intervention. In my own case, for instance, whenever I raise a client invoice, it is saved in a Dropbox folder that then automatically synchronises with my Evernote database. This data can be carried about with us anywhere on tablets and smartphones for almost instant access.
  • Adobe Reader Icon

    …..but you can open pdf files for free with Adobe Reader

    There are also plenty of other pieces of hardware and software that allow us to scan any pieces of paper into our computers so that we need never hunt down the hard copy original again. The problem with doing this is that you constantly wonder if the effort to scan and electronically file something is ever going to be repaid by saving you time in finding it in the future. For that reason, I still maintain one single lever arch file, where all the “semi important” bits of paper go. Since I refer to it so rarely and there’s so little going into it these days, I don’t even bother separating it into sections. I just bung one sheet in on top of the previous one and I only seem to fill about half a file a year.

As time goes by, we who were born in the days of paper will gradually fall off our twigs. We will be replaced by people who’ve used computers all their lives – people who may never know what it’s like to have a brown envelope drop onto the mat.

Paperless Office - Not

I’m not really getting the hang of the “paperless office”, am I?

All of this came to mind this morning when I received an email from my electricity supplier inviting me to check my tariff. I clicked to follow the link and was taken immediately to a page on their wesbsite where it showed calculations indicating that I was already on the best tariff. I clicked the Evernote icon on my browser and Evernote saved that exact page for me in my Evernote database and gave me the opportunity to file it in the “notebook” that I have labelled “domestic”. All over and done with in a matter of seconds, and not a piece of paper in sight.

You see – there really is an upside to computers.

PS: if you need to create pdf files, investigate before buying Adobe Acrobat as some programs (eg “Word”) have a pdf writer inbuilt. Also, some scanners can create a pdf file direct from the scan.

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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